Premiering Saturday as part of the documentary competition at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas, the film "Jeff" paints a quietly unnerving portrait of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer and his effect on the people of Milwaukee. Interviews with Dahmer's former neighbor, the police detective who took his confession and the city medical examiner are intercut with fictional scenes of Dahmer at his most normal and mundane, out in the world like anyone else. Sometimes evil too must ride the bus.
The meditative hybrid film is the feature debut for 29-year-old director Chris James Thompson, who works in the Milwaukee office of Chris Smith, maker of the seminal documentary "American Movie." It was Thompson's friend Frankie Latina, director of the nouveau-exploitation film "Modus Operandi," who initially kept encouraging Thompson to make a film about one of their city's most notorious residents, a man found guilty of the murder of 17 people. Thompson wasn't interested.
"I think Frankie had this idea that I'd start and he'd sort of commandeer it, to make this crazy, violent Jeffrey Dahmer slasher film," said Thompson during a recent call from Milwaukee. "And I wanted nothing to do with that, but he kept bringing me magazines and books and movies and all this stuff he would find to convince me to start shooting a Jeffrey Dahmer film. What I realized was that no one had ever done a respectable job telling the story."
When Dahmer was arrested in 1991, Thompson was often shuttling back and forth between the homes of his recently divorced parents in Madison, Wis., and Milwaukee. Even then he recalled being struck by the difference in how people talked about the story from outside and inside Milwaukee. That same distinction came to him from his research on Dahmer.
"None of it seemed like it paid the respect that the city deserved," he said. "It all felt like it was told by outsiders and none of it felt like it did the city any justice. They never really got to the point of letting anyone from Milwaukee talk, about how it affected them or how they felt or what it did to their lives. It had such a crazy effect on so many people here, yet everyone just came in like, 'What was wrong with him?' as opposed to 'How did you deal with it?' "
Enlisting another local filmmaker, Andrew Swant, as his lead, Thompson began to make a fictional film about the everyday Dahmer, walking around, riding the bus, everything but his horrific acts. It was only after he had begun filming that he decided to talk to some of the people who were affected by Dahmer, transitioning his film from fiction into documentary.
That began an odyssey of wooing onetime neighbor Pamela Bass, former medical examiner Dr. Jeffrey Jentzen and former detective Patrick Kennedy into participating; all had grown weary of talking about the man they hadn't invited into their lives.
"They each had this list of things that had happened to them they just assumed no one wanted to hear," Thompson said. "It had never been done that way, when they get to talk about every single thing from their own point of view. It's always been Dahmer, Dahmer, Dahmer, it's never been their side of it."
Kennedy described the striped shirt that Dahmer wore in a now famous courtroom appearance, memorialized on the cover of People magazine, and how it actually belonged to Kennedy's son. It was just the kind of disarmingly personal information Thompson was looking for.
"He was so surprised anyone cared about that part of the story," Thompson recalled.
The film at times brushes the line of taking a sympathetic view of Dahmer, humanizing him even as he is depicted buying an unusual amount of bleach or awkwardly carting home an oversized blue waste bin.
"It's such a sensitive topic, the list of things I was worried about was endless," said Thompson of his decisions on how to portray Dahmer. "Except I knew that I didn't set out to make him sympathetic. That wasn't my goal.
"Anyone watching the film knows the horrible things he did and would never excuse any of that or make apologies on his behalf. We didn't sit down and say, 'Let's make a sympathetic plea for Jeffrey Dahmer.' It was more, 'Let's make a movie that shows what everyone around him had to deal with.' "
-- Mark Olsen
Photo: Andrew Swant as Jeffrey Dahmer in "Jeff." Credit: Michael Vollman / "Jeff"