I know I am a little late writing this post, but that is solely due to the fact that I had to watch Mindhunter twice to fully appreciate it’s subtle genius.
I’d like to start off by putting stating loudly for all to hear that I am HERE for any further Joe Penhall and David Fincher projects.
Mindhunter is a period piece that is dripping with Fincher’s eye for detail and obsession with, well, obsession. See Zodiac no seriously, go watch Zodiac on Netflix before you finish reading this article. Mindhunter takes place in the 70s, a quintessential time for the evolution of both serial killers and the FBI agents who pioneered a way to study and stop these prolific killers. The agents, Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) and Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) work on a new branch of the FBI, the behavioral science unit. They, along with their academic advisor and expert Dr. Wendy Carr (Anna Torv or is it Nora Durst?), are trying to understand the minds of these killers, because as Tench says. “How can you stop crazy unless you know how it thinks.”
And getting a front row seat to the thoughts of a killer is exactly what Mindhunter gives the viewer. One of the smartest things that this show does is its most unexpected trait. In a world where shows are increasingly graphic and we all stare at our screens screaming for blood, Mindhunter takes an intellectual approach. It flips the script, the horror takes place in your imagination as you hear Edmund Kemper calmly discuss how he beheaded his own mother. (Cameron Britton plays this part so perfectly it’s eerie) It is that kind of intentional decision to not show the gruesome reality of these crimes that makes Mindhunter stand out in a sea of red.
The series also avoids other procedural pitfalls. Ford and Tench don’t meet up at the morgue and examine a body, they don’t singlehandedly solve crimes or act like they are the only authorities. This has become an all too common trope in cop, or other legal department procedural. See Law and Order or Criminal Minds. This is a clear cut above, and I give all the credit to the amazing show-runners and writers. I also give credit to the actors. The show underwrote some of the female roles, or treated them as interesting stereotypes (hey Debbie), but I think that can and should be fixed in season 2. I think Wendy will need to have a stronger role in the second season, and that will take the edge off of the male centered storylines.
The closest trope that Mindhunter leans on is the “young, boundary pushing rookie who wants to change the system and the gruff, grumpy old guy/mentor who would rather golf than interview serial killers”. This may be the initial dynamic presented by Ford and Tench, but as the season continues, they are so much more. McCallany gives Tench a gruffness borne out of pure physicality, his steel grey flat-top haircut and square jaw scream classic film noir, but he gives Tench an understanding and intelligence that matches and sometimes out-does Ford’s. Groff as Agent Ford is the ambitious and seemingly naive FBI agent with something to prove, he just doesn’t know what that is yet. I was struck by the absolute sincerity and overt earnestness of Groff’s character, I suspect a lot of that is simply Groff’s personality as well. I drew a lot of parallels to Jake Gyllenhaal as Robert Graysmith in Zodiac. He brought this sweetness to Ford, that only further exposed his hidden seediness when he got wrapped up in his own method, and began to thrive on interviewing, and even bonding with the interview subjects.
It is that raw exploration of the human psyche that makes Mindhunter so powerful. It asks what are you capable of, and how does someone get to that point. The show hints at exploring some of the most prolific killers of that time, including Manson and BTK Killer. Mindhunter picks incessantly at the ends of your nerves, keeping you on edge throughout the show despite no outward violent scenes or attacks. In fact the first episode is the most “gory” the show truly gets, physically.
The show shines in the small, moments. That is such a Fincher move. A couple scenes that are stand out in my opinion are all quite different, but brilliant in their own way. First, I love a good montage and the everyday drudgery of life on the road for the agents is an especially enjoyable one. It is set to the iconic Steve Miller Band song “Fly Like an Eagle.” The second great scene is when the agents and Wendy are given the news that they have been awarded federal funding for their project. I cannot do justice to the perfectly, I mean meticulously perfectly timed scene with my fumbling words, so just watch it yourself. Take it in. Watch it again. I can wait.
This is just a taste of the absolutely sublime first season of Mindhunter and I for one, cannot wait to see season 2.