Raphael Duhamel reviews David Fincher’s thrilling Netflix series.
“It’s always the mother. They all have a crazy, angry mother.”
Mindhunter is a Freudian’s dream. Set in Virginia in 1977, the new ten-episode Netflix series follows two FBI agents from the Behavioral Science Unit, Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) and Bill Tench (Holt McCallany), as they travel across the United States helping local law enforcement and, most importantly, interviewing serial killers. It diverges greatly from most crime shows which have populated television and computer screens over the last decade by deliberately showing as little blood and gore as possible, excluding the first episode’s brilliant opening scene – one of David Fincher’s trademarks.
Mindhunter is about conversations. It brings to light the beginnings of criminal profiling, by focusing almost exclusively on the two partners’ dialogues with convicted murderers. Fincher, who also took on the executive producer role, and creator Joe Penhall, brought in Amy filmmaker Asif Kapadia to direct two episodes, on the basis that only documentarians could grasp the intensity and tension of long, talkative scenes. Holden’s young and ambitious persona contrasts with Bill’s tough and bulky figure in interviews, as the former tends to sympathize with killers in order to get more information, whereas the veteran agent carefully keeps his distance. Bill is experienced and self-conscious enough to be aware of his limits: he notably decides to take a step back after his adopted and autistic son steals a crime-scene picture from his home office. Holden, however, keeps on interviewing criminals and even comes close to being friends with Edmund Kemper, the infamous Co-ed Butcher, accused of murdering ten people. This dynamic is central to the show’s narrative, depicting Holden’s slow descent into madness, during which he alienates himself from his employer, colleagues, and girlfriend.
Mindhunter the image of its protagonist: eerily empathetic, forthrightly fearless, yet incredibly lovable. It sets itself the difficult task of appealing to the audience by lessening the mysterious aura surrounding serial killers, and portraying them only as very peculiar human beings. This article’s opening quote is an example of that, as these convicts’ unconscious motives seem to be easily decipherable. Their childhood is consistently marked by an absent father and strict mother, which drives them towards animal cruelty and, later on, more violent crimes, usually sexual. Mindhunter presents, indeed, a naturalistic and deterministic approach to crime, demonstrating that psychopaths are a product of society and their environment. Most crimes both partners have to deal with occur in rural America, usually in poor “white trash” families. This determinism is particularly relevant in the series’ 1970s context, post-Vietnam War and especially post-Watergate, in a country that seems to have lost its faith and trust in the government. Holden, a representative of the FBI, is paradoxically trying to comprehend the minds of individuals who have supposedly been turned into criminals by the system he incarnates so well. This contradiction is also present in his romantic relationship with Deborah Mittford (Hannah Gross), a post-graduate sociology student, who embodies the typical leftist hippie, and continually mocks him for his “goody two shoes” look. Mindhunter thrives on these paradoxes, aptly portrayed by its protagonist, and succeeds in representing the complexity of both Holden and the interviewed subjects.
The show, nevertheless, lacks strong female characters, although it does try to give them prominent parts. Anna Torv plays Wendy Carr, a resilient and independent psychology professor, who comes to work for the FBI in Quantico, in order to help Holden and Bill establish behavioral patterns. Her attitude and personality indicate early on her masculine features, making the revelation she is a lesbian less of a surprise to the viewer. However, instead of building from that fact a compelling narrative for her character, her sexual orientation ends up justifying every single one of her actions. She regularly accuses her colleagues of misogyny when interacting with the subjects, acting as an unfortunate and stereotypical representative of her gender. Similarly, Deborah Mittford is reduced to her girlfriend status. Her story is not fully developed, as she stands only as a counterpoint to Holden in his private life. She makes the notion of supporting character even more fitting, appearing and disappearing at the same time as her partner.
The series’ best feature, however, remains its original storytelling and direction, which immaculately reflect David Fincher’s vision. The filmmaker, who directed the two first and last episodes of the season, has deliberately distanced himself from his previous creations, notably Se7en and Zodiac, in order to demystify serial killers. For this reason, Mindhunter differs greatly from other recent and successful crime shows, such as Hannibal or True Detective; similarly, the lack of on-screen violence feels new and appropriate, as it intensifies the psychological terror surrounding the interviews. The series’ opening credits, alternating between close-up shots of Holden installing the recording equipment for the interviews and snapshots of a female corpse, also enhance the show’s power of suggestion.
The filmmaker’s desaturated color aesthetic, which fits well with the period setting, is clearly recognizable throughout the season. He worked with Erik Messerschmidt, his cinematographer, to light characters in contrast with the outside world, using practical lights that appear inside the frame. When Holden interviews Edmund Kemper for the first time, by himself, the interrogation room appears blue and cold, accentuating the young agent’s isolation in front of the colossal and intimidating murderer, whereas the sunlight coming through the windows is warm and yellow. Fincher’s detached and robotic camera, following every single character movement, is also present, contributing further to the show’s ominous sense of dread.
Mindhunter is a refreshing series, and an exhilaratingly cerebral newcomer in the growingly banal landscape of crime television. Its grounded realism and stylistic commitments form an enthralling whole, although some characters are not quite as developed as others. David Fincher’s skillful touch undoubtedly adds to this talkative creation the necessary expertise, making it one of 2017’s best shows.
Mindhunter is available to watch on Netflix. Check out the official series trailer below: