On July 22, 1992, Milwaukee police finally arrested serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer after an altercation with an almost-victim led officers to his apartment on the west side of town. There, police discovered a human head chilling in the refrigerator, the dismembered body parts of several others and a murder scene described as a “disaster” that exceeded police resources.
Soon, the public knew the name Dahmer, and that he had collected souvenir skulls from his victims, including a 14-year-old boy who briefly escaped into the arms of local police (naked and bleeding) only to be returned to a fast-talking Dahmer (who promptly killed him). Dahmer confessed to 17 murders, was declared legally sane in court, and eventually sentenced to 15 life terms totaling 957 years in prison. But Dahmer would only serve 2 before a fellow inmate beat him to death in the Columbia Correctional Institution.
All of this disturbing information is included in the documentary simply titled Jeff, directed by first-time feature documentarian Chris James Thompson. Only Thompson wasn’t interested in just re-telling the same grisly details or another sensational deep dive into Dahmer’s demented mind. Instead the case summary is surprisingly innocuous, given the subject matter, and paired with an unconventional narrative side that follows Dahmer around as a seemingly ordinary citizen. Just “Jeff,” a quiet loner, alcoholic, and homosexual with a creepy thin mustache, and how his heinous crimes affected the surrounding community. (Way to ruin our name, Dahmer.)
Pat Kennedy, Thompson’s chief witness and the homicide detective that elicited Dahmer’s detailed confession, sports his own ‘stache as he recalls Jeff’s calm demeanor upon capture. Kennedy adds an unexpected empathy for the killer, as well as insight into the man not the monster. He also adds peripheral tidbits to the story, like where Dahmer’s famous striped shirt came from before it was immortalized in his first courtroom appearance. After the South by Southwest premiere, Kennedy said Jeff was a cunning manipulator who was “queer for fish.”
The forensic doctor who examined the skeletal remains provides the scientific side, such as confirmation of Dahmer’s experimentation with cannibalism and lobotomy. Dahmer’s next door neighbor in the complex, which has since been demolished, embodies the stunned community and recounts the public frenzy in the aftermath of his arrest. But Thompson is careful to stay on message, more concerned with how each person reacted rather than their insider information.
Andrew Swant plays Dahmer in the narrative angle, though the spliced-in reenactments often amount to little more than the actor wandering around Milwaukee. In context, Dahmer lugging a blue barrel on the city bus is unsettling (since he later filled it with acid and body parts), but other scenes, like a linger in a hotel hallway, are as boring as Thompson admits.
Thompson’s film is an intriguing character study with a unique perspective that should be fascinating for true-crime enthusiasts, but its narrowed focus only leaves you wanting to know more and in a more traditional, factual format. Ultimately, Jeff could serve as a strong companion piece to a more complete documentary on Dahmer’s life and the lives he impacted.