Wisconsin Film Festival preview : “The Jeffrey Dahmer Files”


“The Jeffrey Dahmer Files” screens at 9:15 p.m. Saturday, April 13 at the UW-Elvehjem (the original Chazen building), and at 8:30 p.m. Sunday, April 14 at Sundance Cinemas. Director Chris James Thompson will attend both screenings. Visit wifilmfest.org for tickets and other information.

Here’s what may be the most disturbing aspect of “The Jeffrey Dahmer Files”; there isn’t a drop of blood in the film.

Instead of diving deep into the gruesome crimes of Milwaukee serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, director Chris James Thompson (who grew up partly in Madison) has made a film that sort of orbits around that evil in a innovative mix of documentary and drama. We hear about the crimes in detail, but we don’t see them. Instead, we see the effect that those crimes had on three people, innocent bystanders of a sort. Together, the three witnesses provide an intimate yet horrifying perspective of what was discovered in that cookie-cutter apartment building.

Thompson interviews Pat Kennedy, the detective who got Dahmer’s confession and was, briefly, a media celebrity. (“When I tell you what I tell you,” Dahmer told him in the interview room, “You’ll be famous.”)  He interviews Jeffrey Jentzen, the lead pathologist on the case, who maintains his professional composure as a case no coroner’s office was meant to handle arrived at his doorstep. And he interviews Pam Bass, a neighbor in Dahmer’s building who befriended him, and was became an unwilling focus of the media when the crimes were revealed. “How could you not have known?” everyone asks her, accusingly.

But of course, nobody knew. And that’s the point of “Files,” how long a polite young man was able to skate under the radar of the city, selecting young black men for his crimes in part because he knew the police were less likely to go looking for them.

Illustrating this point is the other half of “The Jeffrey Dahmer Files,” which features actor Andrew Swant playing Dahmer. But we don’t see Dahmer committing his crimes; instead, we see him doing seemingly ordinary, mundane things — sitting by an empty riverbed drinking beer, wandering around in the parking lot at the Wisconsin State Fair, buying large plastic barrels and other “supplies” at drugstores and warehouses. Of course, we know what he’s going to do with those things, but the bored clerks barely raise an eyebrow. Even when he takes a giant blue barrel on a bus, the other passengers don’t look up.

“The Jeffrey Dahmer Files” will likely disappoint horror fans hoping for a bloodthirsty recreation of Dahmer’s quiet rampage. Instead, Thompson’s film is something really different, a film as polite and as unnerving as its subject, one that burrows down deep into your imagination and stays there.

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