AUSTIN — Achieving an almost trance-like intimacy by paring its array of voices down to the essentials, Chris James Thompson‘s Jeff stands apart from the true-crime pack. Its restraint likely limits theatrical prospects, but the doc will impress at fests and should have legs on video.
Focusing almost exclusively on the moment at which serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer‘s bizarre crimes were discovered, the film interviews only three people, all with first-hand knowledge: the detective who interviewed Dahmer (Pat Kennedy), the medical examiner (Jeffrey Jentzen) who explored what he left behind, and a neighbor (Pamela Bass) who will always be haunted by the gruesome crimes committed under her nose.
Each adds a different flavor to the narrative but, while Bass and Jentzen may supply the most shocking imagery (Bass, who found Dahmer to be a friendly and generous neighbor, is horrified to think what might have been in the sandwiches he gave her), Kennedy is the most engaging viewer surrogate — a big, mustachioed fella forced to befriend the killer during the long process of identifying his victims.
While Kennedy and Bass sketch the event’s macabre aftermath, full of curious tourists and psychological trauma, Thompson approaches the period just before Dahmer’s capture differently: In atmospheric vignettes scattered through the film, he uses actor Andrew Swant to envision Dahmer’s calm, polite movement through the workaday world. He gets his eyes checked and drinks beer, shops for pet fish and for hardware that is sinister only in retrospect. We witness scenes before and after one hotel-room murder, but not the thing itself — Thompson’s goal is never titillation.
He doesn’t appear to be after psychological insights either, though Swant’s performance is eerily convincing. Instead, the two halves of the film combine to produce a powerful you-are-there effect, stripping Dahmer of evil-icon stature and unsettling us by showing how closely the unthinkable can lurk alongside the mundane.
Venue: South By Southwest Film Festival, Documentary Competition
Production company: Good/Credit Productions
Director-producer-editor: Chris James Thompson
Screenwriters: Andrew Swant, Joe Riepenhoff
Executive producers: Chris Smith, Barry Poltermann
Director of photography: Michael T. Vollmann
Music: The Knife, The Books
Sales: Josh Braun, Submarine
No rating, 76 minutes