Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

‘Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story’ is Netflix’s best take on true crime

A nuanced exploration of the factors that created and sustained a killer
Official “Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story” poster | IMDB

There are few things audiences love more than serial killers. For better or worse, the American public’s obsession with violent crime has spurred countless pieces of media dedicated to the subject. Netflix’s 2019 fictionalization of Ted Bundy’s life starring Zac Efron, “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile” represented some of the worst that the true crime genre has to offer. The film was a surface level, highly stylized portrayal of Bundy’s crimes that offered little insight into the systemic failures that allowed Bundy to kill for so long. If “Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story” is Netflix’s attempt to right the wrongs of their past, they’ve undoubtedly made huge strides in the right direction.

Created by Ryan Murphy, best known for “American Horror Story,” the 10-episode miniseries explores Dahmer’s life from birth to death. In refreshing opposition to genre conventions, there is a heavy focus on law enforcement’s efforts, or lack thereof, to catch Dahmer and his interviews with police after he was apprehended. Every scene featuring the Milwaukee police is infuriating to watch. Their incompetence, willful ignorance and bigotry is brought to the forefront. In one of the series’ most memorable scenes, two officers deliver a heavily drugged fourteen year old boy to Dahmer after the boy managed to escape his apartment.

When Dahmer’s neighbor Glenda Cleveland, played by Niecy Nash, expresses concern about the boy’s age and apparent condition, the police brush it off and assure her that the boy is Dahmer’s romantic partner. As you watch these kinds of incidents unfold repeatedly, wherein Dahmer narrowly escapes discovery by taking advantage of racism and homophobia, it’s difficult not to feel nearly as much disdain for the Milwaukee police department as you do towards Dahmer himself.

While Dahmer is presented as the main character, episodes six and seven switch the focus to Tony Hughes, played by Rodney Burford, one of Dahmer’s victims, and Glenda Cleveland, respectively. Episode six is particularly impactful, both in form and content. Since Tony is deaf, the majority of the dialogue is conveyed in subtitles, sign language and written words. In just under an hour, we get a remarkably full picture of Tony’s life, from his dreams of becoming a model to his deep desire to find love. Despite only appearing in one episode, he is an intensely relatable character. The scene where he spots Dahmer for the first time across a crowded club is, perhaps, the most devastating moment in the entire show. The gruesome details of Tony’s murder are never shown explicitly, and they don’t need to be for the audience to feel the full weight of his death.

The highlight of the series is Evan Peters’ incredible performance as Dahmer, which is almost certain to be a career defining role for the actor. He is at once off-putting and strangely familiar. His villainy is never cartoonish or sensationalized, and thus feels even more disgusting. The subtlety and nuance Peters brings to the character is what makes him truly terrifying. In short, he makes Dahmer uncomfortably real. It doesn’t feel like watching an impression or even a clever imitation, but an uncanny embodiment of the notorious killer himself. Many of the most disturbing moments are when Dahmer is alone, lying in bed with a mannequin or drinking blood in his grandmother’s bathroom — that’s where Peters’ grasp of the character really shines.

Additionally, Niecy Nash’s performance as Glenda is immediately believable and sympathetic. Nash effortlessly captures both Glenda’s subtle composure when she’s threatened by Dahmer as he sits in her living room, and the abject horror she feels later that night when screams can be heard from his apartment.

A huge part of the mastery of this series is in its portrayal, or lack thereof, of the murders themselves. Somehow, the sound of an electric saw over a close-up of a vent is more bone-chilling than any amount of gore or graphic violence could ever be. The details of Dahmer’s crimes have long been public knowledge, there’s no reason to rehash them on film. The series’ refusal to explicitly portray gratuitous violence not only avoids the pitfalls of glamorization that true crime often falls into, but also serves as a constant reminder to audiences that these murders are not plot points in a horror movie, but real-life events.

While the true crime genre has a long way to go when it comes to its poor treatment of victims, fetishization and sensationalism, “Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story” represents some major improvements. It makes no apologies or justifications for Dahmer’s actions and it doesn’t give the audience a single opportunity to empathize with him. It simply presents his life as it was with little embellishment. It’s grim, tough to watch and won’t leave you feeling confident in the goodness of humanity. The success of this series indicates a gradual shift in true crime — a move from flippant, morbid entertainment to more meaningful explorations of cruelty, evil and tragedy.

Molly Hamilton can be reached at [email protected].

Leave a Comment
More to Discover

Comments (0)

All Massachusetts Daily Collegian Picks Reader Picks Sort: Newest

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *