Mesmerizing and haunting, "The Jeffrey Dahmer Files" is an inside-out serial killer movie, lacking in gore or cheap psychology and made in part for those who think they never want to see another serial killer movie. A hybrid of documentary and fiction, the film is directed by Milwaukee-based Chris James Thompson in his feature debut. Rather than indulging in exploitation kicks, the film engages more with Dahmer's impact on the community.
The fictional footage features Andrew Swant as the notorious Dahmer, who murdered and dismembered 17 people; he seems to be a bland, weird-but-harmless blank slate. As Dahmer is seen going about his business, buying a disconcerting amount of bleach or awkwardly transporting an oversized plastic drum on a city bus, it all seems mundane in the moment, ghastly in retrospect.
The documentary segments are interviews with three lives altered by Dahmer: Patrick Kennedy, the detective who took his confession; Pam Bass, a neighbor; and Milwaukee's then-medical examiner Dr. Jeffrey Jentzen. Kennedy recalls, for example, how the striped shirt that Dahmer wore for the courtroom appearance (which fixed his dangerous-dork image in the public mind) was actually one he gave to Dahmer because his teenage son didn't want it.
A moment in which Kennedy recalls one of Dahmer's more grisly confessions played against an image of Swant just staring off on a couch fuses the two tracks of the film into one hypnotically engrossing portrait. Far from closing the case, "The Jeffrey Dahmer Files" opens up a whole new perspective, acknowledging the banal and the baffling.