Wednesday, 18 April 2012

JEFF - Review By Greg Klymkiw - HOT DOCS 2012 - Must-See #3

Jeff (2012) dir. Chris James Thompson
Starring: Andrew Swant, Pat Kennedy, Pamela Bass, Jeffrey Jentzen


By Greg Klymkiw

If a kind, sensitive, soft-spoken, friendly and intelligent next door neighbour paid frequent visits in which he always brought delicious sandwiches lovingly made by his own hand and you eventually learned that he was not only a serial killer but a cannibal, chances are pretty good that you indeed had been munching happily on his victims. Mais non?

This, of course, is just one of many appalling thoughts haunting Pamela Bass and will, no doubt, continue to haunt her until the very last gasp.

Pamela's kindly neighbour, you see, was none other than Jeffrey Dahmer, the sociopathic nutcase who tortured. murdered, performed necrophiliac sex acts, dismembered and ate 17 young men in his Milwaukee apartment during his leisure time whilst working in a chocolate factory.

Upon his arrest, Dahmer was interviewed by detective Pat Kennedy who had to "befriend" the killer to pry a confession as well as get an accurate number of victims in order to identify them. Police work - GOOD police work - often requires more than just a strong stomach, but the talent to render Oscar-winning performances to get to the truth. Identifying the remains in a pre-DNA world was not an easy task and Kennedy needed to convince Dahmer that he was sincere, benevolent and just a good pal who wanted to help.

All that remained of most of the victims was a head in the fridge, skull trophies, preserved genitals, "meat" in the freezer and a huge, putrid vat full of body parts floating amidst copious globs of viscera and acid.

Chief Medical Examiner Jeffrey Jantzen was assigned the gruesome task of studying the remains of the victims to determine both their identities and causes of death. In one case, he made the shocking discovery that Dahmer had drilled into the head of a young man and performed a living lobotomy upon him.

Detective Kennedy would get these delicious nuggets from Jantzen and in his winning manner, suited more to a kaffeeklatsch than an interrogation room, he'd get Dahmer to calmly retch up the details. In the case of the lobotomy victim, Dahmer nonchalantly revealed that his goal was to create a zombie and furthermore, that he performed this surgery without any manner of mind-altering anesthetic.

Bass, Kennedy and Jantzen are the primary interview subjects of director Chris James Thompson's Jeff. He trains his steady camera on them and lets it roll. Their talking heads are more than enough to cinematically render a grotesque portrait of a serial killer in that point just before, during and just after his capture.

The subjects are simply, but nicely shot with crisp sound to allow for Thompson's clearly penetrating and well researched line of questioning and in turn, revealing three very diverse personalities who all deliver exactly what we need to get a sense of Dahmer's crimes and, most importantly, insight into the man himself.

The one key element in the film that, for me, keeps the picture from achieving a greatness is how Thompson stitches the interviews together with competently rendered dramatic recreations - so competent that they feel, at times, like bargain basement Errol Morris (though definitely a few cuts above the usual nonsense one sees in cheesy A&E-styled "documentaries"). While these scenes are delivered in a low-key format (with a genuinely superb performance from Andrew Swant as Dahmer) they unfortunately stick out like a whole vat full of sore thumbs.

Low key was the right way to approach the dramatic recreations, but it feels like Thompson would have been better off to trust his subjects and his own interview skills. He lets the movie luxuriate itself upon and within the three subjects - enough so, that I strongly feel he should have stuck to the simplicity of the talking heads with dollops of the archival material and other interviews he uses.

It's a testament to Thompson's clear ability to work with these three people and get the phenomenal footage he wrenches out of them that finally, Jeff is the most powerful rendering of the atrociously horrific crimes of Jeffrey Dahmer yet committed to film.

Sadly, it just misses the boat on greatness.

"Jeff" is playing Sat, Apr 28 11:30 PM at Bloor Hot Docs Cinema and Sun, Apr 29 10:00 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 1 and Fri, May 4 9:45 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 2 during the 2012 edition of Toronto's Hot Docs Film Festival. For tickets, visit the Hot Docs website HERE.

Download and view the Electronic Press Kit of "Jeff" at the film's website HERE.