For over two decades, David Fincher has been analyzing America’s obsession with serial killers, often focusing on why the crime was committed and not necessarily who committed the crime. From Se7en to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Fincher’s psychological thrillers aren’t just about psychopaths, but equally about the people who hunt them down. Mindhunter is no different, although of all his work it bears a closer resemblance to Zodiac more than anything else. And like Zodiac, Mindhunter is about obsessive people on both sides of the law, and why they do what they do.
The series is based on the nonfiction book titled Mind Hunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Killer Crime Unit by Mark Olshaker and John E. Douglas. Douglas was one of the first criminal profilers in the U.S. who pioneered the method of building psychological profiles of killers so detectives could anticipate their next move or narrow down a list of suspects. You may have never seen even a photo of John E Douglas, but you’ll most likely recognize him as the man who inspired characters in Hannibal and countless other crime dramas. The FBI sniper-turned-hostage negotiator created and managed the FBI’s Criminal Profiling Program, and was later promoted to unit chief of the Investigative Support Unit, a division of the FBI’s National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime (NCAVC).
While traveling around the country providing instruction to police, Douglas began interviewing serial killers (before “serial killer” was even a term) to gauge their motives — not only to figure out why they did what they did, but why they did it the way they did. He interviewed some of the most notable violent criminals in recent history as part of the study, including Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, Charles Manson, Lynette Fromme, Arthur Bremer, Sara Jane Moore, James Earl Ray, Sirhan Sirhan, Donald Harvey, and Joseph Paul Franklin. However, Douglas is nowhere to be found in this new Netflix series. It’s still a show about his work, but not about his life outside of his work. Instead, here the man in question is Holden Ford.
The book was adapted by screenwriter Joe Penhall (The Road) and playwright Jennifer Haley, who have centered the story around two FBI agents (Jonathan Groff and Holt McCallany) and a psychologist (Anna Torv). Groff plays Ford as calm, gentle, equable, unexcitable, serene, cool, and composed. There’s something intriguing about him, yet despite his good looks, intellect, and soothing voice, basic social skills seem to elude him. Regardless, he makes for a compelling protagonist from the moment he’s called into the series’ hostage-situation cold open, where his refusal to wear a bullet-proof vest, use a megaphone, or shoot the culprit dead on the spot tells us everything we need to know. Ford is paired up with Bill Tench (McCallany), a middle-aged behavioral science specialist who teaches a new wave of intelligent casework to local police officers set in their old-fashioned ways.
The series becomes a kind of buddy-cop tale as they zigzag across the country interviewing cops and convicts for research, and on the road, they spend the majority of their time debating the merits of their work. Ford is convinced that by understanding the psychology of a serial killer, it will not only help law enforcement catch the killer but help them understand other criminals they may later encounter. The problem is that Ford is completely clueless as to how he can convince the Bureau’s old guard that they need to modernize their crime-solving methods. Slowly but surely, the two assemble a team — one that includes psychologist Wendy Carr, who helps them apply better scientific rigor to their interviews — and eventually get the funding needed to be able to dedicate all their time to researching the crimes.
The drama begins in 1977. America is still recovering in the aftermath of Watergate and the Kennedy assassination, and it’s the year David Berkowitz (the .44 Caliber Killer, Son of Sam) pleaded guilty to eight separate shootings in New York City. The Son of Sam wasn’t the only criminal to capture the public’s imagination, however; the Manson murders, Ted Bundy and the Zodiac killer (to name just a few) all became household names. It was no longer the summer of love, and the FBI was struggling to comprehend the new wave of depraved killers sweeping the nation. Meanwhile, the agency was dealing with the legacy of its late chief, J. Edgar Hoover, while trying to find its way in a nation that seemed plagued with new evils. When one hostage negotiation goes awry, Holden Ford decides he wants to find better ways to deal with such sensitive matters. His supervisor reassures him that he did everything by the book and that he shouldn’t feel any remorse for what transpired. Ford realizes his boss is right, but something needs to change, so he sets out to rewrite the rules — and maybe, just maybe, write his own book.
Not since Hannibal has a TV crime thriller been this good.
In 1977, the FBI was skeptical of psychology, deeming it unreliable and intellectual nonsense, so when Bill and Holden try to teach police officers around the country about why it is so important to understand the reasons behind murders, the officers don’t respond well. The recruits that Ford lectures are almost entirely young, white men whose prejudices are as ingrained as their privilege, and realizing that his ideas aren’t entirely welcome at the FBI, he decides to seek out help. Ford persuades Tench to join him in interviewing convicted murderers, and luckily for him Trench convinces their superiors to allow them the freedom to do so. “How do we get ahead of crazy if we don’t know how crazy thinks?” Tench asks.
Like most police procedurals, Mindhunter centers around the pairing of two agents who couldn’t be more different than from one another, and thankfully McCallany and Groff make the perfect combination of idealism and realism. Listening to them talk is entertaining enough, and boy do they talk. Make no mistake about it, this is a show about conversations, and we get a lot of long ones between just about everyone involved. In fact, the biggest visceral thrill of the entire season just so happens to be the cold open, when the aforementioned hostage situation takes a turn for the unexpected.
Outside of that, this is TV show firmly rooted in dialogue and exchanges of ideas, beliefs, worldviews, and psychology. Forget computerized databases and forensic science — Ford and Trench don’t believe the criminals they pursue as born inherently evil, but rather formed, and that’s where David Fincher’s involvement feels pivotal. Mindhunter plays out like an expanded version of other big-screen, Fincher-directed procedurals, like Seven, Zodiac, and Gone Girl. The show takes its sweet time getting from one scene to the next, whether it’s a tense interrogation or the back-and-forth banter between the agents and convicts. In other words, it is methodical rather than macabre, clinical rather than spontaneous. Needless to say, if you love listening to True Crime podcasts, you’ll love Mindhunter.
Not since Hannibal has a TV crime thriller been this good. Only unlike Hannibal, Mindhunter toys with our fascination of the macabre without ever showing the gruesome acts of violence, outside of the occasional crime-scene photo. Its big set pieces aren’t horrific murders, but scenes where killers describe their heinous acts, and the talk is ghastly enough to make your skin crawl. In the title sequence, images of death flicker briefly on screen over the meticulous loading of an audio recorder. As a pair of hands carefully sets up the ‘70s era reel-to-reel tape machine, the photos that were taken from a murder scene flash in and out. And that’s what Mindhunter is all about — the audio tapes and the conversations they record along the way hold the secret to understanding how to think like a killer in hopes of stopping the killer.
The show’s at its best when spending time with convicts, and along the way you’ll be introduced to the likes of Richard Speck, the mass murderer who systematically tortured, raped, and murdered eight student nurses from South Chicago Community Hospital , as well as Dennis Rader, known as the serial killer BTK (Bind, Torture, Kill), whose scenes usually bookmark individual episodes. We see the home security installer splitting his time between Wichita and Park City, scouting out homes and street corners and finding his next victim. By the time the season ends, it becomes clear where Mindhunter is headed next, and how Rader will play a major part in season two.
The most chilling scenes revolve around the encounters with Edmund Kemper (Cameron Britton), who was named “the co-ed killer” after he abducted and murdered a series of female college students in California, dismembering his victims before having sex with their severed heads. Britton gives one of the year’s standout performances, and the scenes between Kemper and Ford are some of the most disturbing you’ll see all year. Kemper calls his killing spree a “vocation,” and describes his murderous work as an “oeuvre.” “You can spell oeuvre, can’t you, Holden?” he asks. In the flesh, he’s a friendly gentle giant. Standing at 6 feet 9 inches, Kemper is articulate, polite, extremely intelligent, and loves to talk. He seems rather harmless, at least behind bars, but as time goes by the agents realize they are caught in a game of wits with someone far more cunning than they anticipated.
He’s so good in fact, Mindhunter doesn’t fully work until Ford gets into a room with the convicted serial killer. Kemper offers Ford a breakfast sandwich, makes him a cup of coffee, and orders some pizza in the same breath he talks about having sex with his mom’s decapitated head. It’s creepy stuff, and that’s what elevates the tension throughout each episode. Seeing a crime committed on television is one thing, but listening to someone explain how and why they did it in excruciating details is the stuff that will give you nightmares when you sleep. Kemper is the season’s big bad, a man who feels no shame or remorse, and someone who would crack your skull open in a blink of an eye. And yet every time he is off screen, you can’t help but miss him. When Kemper suggests he be lobotomized Ford objects, knowing he would lose a valuable resource. Meanwhile, we the audience might also object, knowing we would lose the most fascinating character of any show this year.
The final scene in the tenth episode will have your heart pounding, your hands gripping to the armrests and leave you gasping for air.
TV in the past several years has been obsessed with serial killers. Shows like Hannibal and Dexter have given us killers who are complicated antiheroes, and whose crimes are the focal point of every episode. Mindhunter is far more academic than lurid, and it’s terrifying at times to find unexpected parallels to modern society. It also helps that the show looks and sounds great. Fincher is in a league of his own, and it shouldn’t be surprising that the unsettling atmosphere is likely due to his sterile framing and muted palette (Fincher directed four of the ten episodes). The moody atmosphere, the meticulous camerawork, and the sharp sound design are what you come to expect from a Fincher production. The show is handsome, looks expensive, and is shot in the ultra-wide 2.35:1 aspect ratio often reserved for big-budget Hollywood films. It’s also never too “showy,” and the cinematography by Erik Messerschmidt and Christopher Probst at times evokes the work of Harris Savides in Zodiac. I have yet to see a television show this year as lavishly filmed, meticulously directed, and beautifully scored.
The final scene in the tenth episode will have your heart pounding, your hands gripping to the armrests, and leave you gasping for air. It’s a masterclass of building suspense, and nobody does it better than Fincher. Mindhunter is part detective story and part character study, a series confident enough to avoid the need to include chases, shootouts, grandstanding climaxes, and blood and gore. Yet make no mistake, Mindhunter is undoubtedly creepy as fuck, and often concludes with horrific stories of childhood trauma, physical and mental abuse, or sexual assault. It’s often unpleasant as it should be, and is something that will linger in your memory long after the credits roll.
– Ricky D