I really thought Netflix's new hit true-crime series "Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story" was going to be different.
When the latest Ryan Murphy production debuted last week, I even wrote a piece arguing why it wasn't just trudging up a well-documented horrific story for no reason beyond Netflix needing to hit its monthly true crime quota. An impressive cast and crew – one even more impressive than I knew at the time, with alt cinema icon Gregg Araki quietly helming one of the episodes. A trailer that hinted at something more under the surface than just a glossy new Wikipedia-like rundown of the awful events. An official synopsis and interviews that discussed how the victims were the true focus. What could go wrong? Sure, Murphy ("Glee," "American Horror Story") wasn't known for the most tactful touch – but his "American Crime Story" sagas already successfully found depth digging into three other infamous '90s tabloid tales. Maybe he could do the same here.
One week and ten mostly unpleasant hours later, I'm sad to report that he could not. The mini-series may have that streaming shine, prestige TV cast and – eventually, somewhere in there – good intentions (though Netflix releasing it just before spooky season tells you how seriously they take the material), but in the end, it's just another round of ghoulishly gawping at one of the ugliest stories imaginable. And yes, Milwaukeeans like myself may be particularly touchy about Dahmer and his overexposure – but one doesn't have to be close to the case to find most of "Monster" trite and lost in lurid mythology.
To its credit, the problem isn't the production itself – which is impeccably crafted and performed (save for maybe the fact that at no point in this Milwaukee-set story does it ever convincingly look like Milwaukee, instead filmed in Los Angeles).
A Ryan Murphy regular and "X-Men" scene-stealer, Evan Peters puts in probably the definitive on-screen Dahmer performance here, capturing the cold and creepy inhumanity of the killer – the dead-eyed stares, the uncomfortable awkwardness – while hinting at something, maybe not a soul or a humanity but a processing of emotions, lingering underneath. It's not just simple serial killer cosplay, but also without ever fully tricking itself into humanizing the impossibly inhumane.
As his all-too-aware neighbor Glenda Cleveland, haunted by the smells and sounds next door but even more so by her unheard calls for police attention to Dahmer's bizarre behavior, Niecy Nash is excellent as well capturing Cleveland's flustered frustration galvanizing into firmness – still with cracks, though, after such terrifying proximity to the unimaginable. Oscar nominee Richard Jenkins, always a sturdy on-screen presence, is a standout as well as Dahmer's father Lionel, especially as the show goes along and he attempts to process (or simultaneously deny) his guilt over what role he possibly played in developing his son's horrific interests, all while maintaining his cruel attitude toward Jeffrey's brittle birth mother. Even Molly Ringwald – yes, that Molly Ringwald – puts in solid supporting work as Jeffrey's stepmother and Lionel's shoulder that makes her presence register as more than just some peculiar stunt-casting.
The cast across the board is very strong – as deaf Dahmer victim Tony Hughes, Rodney Burford is another standout, bringing a shattering humanity and heartbeat to the miniseries' most powerful episode – and the direction doesn't let them down. With a quality crew of Carl Franklin ("Devil in a Blue Dress"), the previously mentioned Araki, Jennifer Lynch (a Murphy regular and, yes, the "Blue Velvet" creator's daughter) and TV veterans Paris Barclay and Clement Virgo each taking a turn, "Monster" is inarguably tense and unsettling with its often rancid visual look and claustrophobic aesthetic. Franklin's premiere hour particularly captures the haunting feeling of a slow-motion nightmare. It's a credit to their effectively unpleasant work that the miniseries feels almost impossible to binge, especially early on as the suffocating tragedy and grimness makes more than two episodes at a time an endurance test.
It's a discredit, however, to the screenplay and story approach that "Monster" often feels like an endurance test not worth passing. In much of the promotional material, Murphy and company discuss the show as from the perspective of the victims and those engulfed by Dahmer's shadow – which is only accurate if you pretty much entirely skip past the first half of the ten-part series.
Franklin's introductory chapter gets things off to an unsettling start, methodically following a potential victim into Dahmer's apartment and surviving the killer's increasingly menacing behavior before escaping and finally getting Dahmer stopped and arrested. It's grimy, sweaty and skin-shiveringly unpleasant, effectively compelling while also setting the table for the aftermath of Dahmer's attacks and those left rattled and angry in his wake.
Instead of moving forward, however, "Monster" spends the next several hours flashing back to continue to wallow and luxuriate with the worst person imaginable, living an awful life and occasionally commiting the most unthinkable crimes. The four following installments intricately play-by-play through Dahmer's terrible homelife with his emotionally – and eventually literally – absent parents and several of his killings, with little insight beyond leering misery porn and rote psychology. For a show ostensibly about centering the victims, it certainly also has plenty of time for slo-mo shots of Dahmer's gruesome work, messily drinking blood, masturbating to fish guts and throwing a victim's powderized remains into the air like LeBron James before a game.
It doesn't glorify Dahmer; if anything, a key takeaway from "Monster" is that he was actually quite bad at this, clumsily letting victims get away and letting smells and sounds echo around the apartment complex. Only incompetence let his killings continue, not some vicious genius. But it does mythologize the man, spending five hours spotlighting his life and horrific doings, trying to get into his head with the same trite armchair psychoanalysis that the killer's received plenty of times since the early '90s. While Murphy's other productions resurrected the decade's tawdry tabloid sagas for new insight, for the first five hours, "Monster" has nothing new to say about Dahmer other than replay everything we already know for nothing beyond lurid gawking at gruesome insanity and fresh streaming numbers. (It says something about Murphy's strengths and weaknesses as a creator that his best productions – like "American Crime Story" – are the ones he's least hands-on; fittingly the worst half of "Monster" is the one regularly co-written by Murphy.)
The better half – the one that plays closer to the victim-focused miniseries pitched – eventually kicks in around episode six, the best of the bunch following deaf victim Tony Hughes as he seemingly forms a genuine and affectionate bond with Dahmer while trying to find love and a modeling career. The Paris Barclay-directed episode mostly pops the claustrophobic focus on the killer's brutal work and feels like a breath of humanity even if it ends in horrid tragedy, finally finding a new angle on this terrible story – albeit at the exhausting sixth hour.
The following episodes continue to move the lens away from Dahmer and focus on its mission statement with chapters on Nash's Cassandra-like neighbor and the rattled families dealing with the monstrous echoes of the killings. They're new stories told less in the aftermath, and they open "Monster" up to untapped emotional depths and intriguing ideas beyond "here was a disgusting thing that happened once" – including probing the racist biases, unconcious or not, in the systems surrounding Dahmer, not just the police but a court setting that not only lets Dahmer get a free pass for an earlier assault but eyerolls through a victim's father's broken English pleas. The final chapter even tries to bring faith and religion into the story, trying to figure out how people across the saga's spectrum are supposed to move forward, or not – especially when Dahmer pursues baptism, contemplating a deity who can ostensibly forgive the unforgiveable.
It's the most engaging, interesting material – but unfortunately comes when the audience is most weary from the grim and overdone first half, and when the show has the least space left to fully interrogate the ideas and spend quality time with the survivors. And even in this improved back half, "Monster" can't help but get distracted and return to indulging in its grisly details and lurid fascinations. The powerful sixth episode, with Hughes as its center, still has to end with Dahmer methodically cooking up assumably one of his body parts complete with an unblinking bite. Even when Dahmer's in prison, the show comes up with thin rationale to steer its focus to gory, grim snapshots of fellow serial killers Ed Gein and John Wayne Gacy. In "Monster," the victims and survivors can't even keep the spotlight from serial killers they have nothing to do with.
To make matters worse, the final chapters also try to shift attention to the media and culture that turned Dahmer into a celebrity, with fans mailing him money for autographs in prison and letting gossip and unsubstantiated mythology fly while leaving the victims and the systemic issues in the dust. Coming from a show that spent at least half its prolonged running time profiling the serial killer's life and actions in meticulously gruesome detail once more, it's an unearned slap of self-righteousness. ("How could the culture have turned this monster into a media sensation? Anyways, don't forget our upcoming documentary series of Dahmer's actual confessions, streaming on Netflix next month!") Some of its last moments also bring up the debate around Dahmer's brain, whether it should be studied to better understand him – only to conclude that we need to accept we never will. Again, somebody should've told the first five hours of this very miniseries.
Fun fact: I've actually been mis-labeling the title of the miniseries this entire review. The proper name is the frankly ridiculous, cumbersome and redundant "Dahmer - Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story" – which, as clumsy as it is, might actually be perfect. It captures the miniseries to a T: It's bloated and overlong, mainly because it can't help emphasizing Dahmer to its own detriment.
At the very end of the Netflix show, a city official promises Nash's Glenda that Dahmer's demolished apartment complex will become a tribute or memorial to his victims. It never did – a meaningful and heartbreaking final note, one that would hit better if "Monster" wasn't yet another broken promise in its own way.
As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.
When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.