‘MINDHUNTER’ Showcases the Best and Worst of David Fincher

Mindhunter already has a great look and performances. Now it just needs the writing to match. 

You want truffles? You gotta get in the dirt with the pigs.

–Holden Ford

People are fascinated by murderers. It’s a sick but true fact, presumably linked to a person’s innate curiosity to explore the forbidden. But while people are open to experimenting with other forms of deviant behavior during their lives (drugs, vandalism, even minor theft), few among us will know what it’s like to kill in cold blood (thankfully). And that goes double for serial killers.

That doesn’t stop us from wondering about it, though. We’re all still somewhat curious about staring into the void, about probing that heart of darkness. We’re darkly fascinated, and that’s why serial killers are a prominent feature of popular culture, even if they’re rare in reality. It’s why My Favorite Murder is a podcast hit, and season one of Serial was a podcasting sensation (whereas Season 2 was not). It’s why the first season of True Detective was so addictive, and why Criminal Minds is busy airing its thirteenth season on CBS.

Someone who’s definitely fascinated is David Fincher, whose films Seven, Zodiac, and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo all deal with serial killers. So does his new Netflix series, Mindhunter, which details a fictionalized account of the creation of the FBI’s behavioral science unit and the agents and scientists who first profiled serial murderers. Fincher, if nothing else, always knows a good hook for a story.

Jonathon Groff stars as Holden Ford, an FBI hostage negotiator who finds himself assigned to a teaching role with the bureau in the late 1970s. The unwanted assignment is in part because he’s good at it, and also because his overly cerebral style, and his desire to understand the motives behind criminal behavior, isn’t popular with  his coworkers or superiors. However, it makes him a perfect partner for Bill Tench (Holt McCallany), an agent teaching the basics of hostage negotiation to municipal police departments across the country.

The pair frequently meet with pushback from police agencies intent on viewing horrific crimes as the work of people who are just bad apples, or “born crazy,” as one officer states, but Tench and especially Ford force them to see these criminals’ behavior via a different approach: the impact of psychological triggers on the mind. Later, when a class in Vacaville, California brings them within driving distance of the California Medical Facility, Ford can’t pass up the opportunity to interview Ed Kemper, the (real-life) murderer known as the Co-ed Killer, seeing the chance to explore the psyche of a psychopathic murderer as an extension of their work, and leading to the formation of the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit in the process. Ford and Tench are working from a new handbook, one that supposes that violent crime is an extension of an increasingly confusing and destructive society. When you can’t understand the world you live in, how can you understand its people?

What separates Mindhunter from the other numerous aforementioned shows about serial killers is the cinematic quality that Fincher and his team bring with them. Fincher, already executive producing, directs the show’s first two and last two episodes himself, setting the template for the rest of his crew to follow. Simply put, Mindhunter looks great. The series is cut from a similar cloth as Fincher’s 2007 film Zodiac. The director re-utilizes that film’s penchant for fluorescent lighting as a vehicle for emotional unease, matching the unnatural light with the “unnatural” killers that Ford and Tench interview across the first season. A muted palate of greys and browns evokes a chilly sense of unease whether a murderer is in the room or not. Even in the California sunshine and its matching stream of era-appropriate vehicles, bar décor, and period furniture, it always looks like you’d want a sweater. Claps for the set design and art direction teams.

The casting is equally great. Jonathan Groff is an odd choice for this type of project, being better known for his work in comedies and lighthearted dramas like Frozen, Looking, and Hamilton (where he earned a Tony nomination playing George III), but Fincher utilizes that to his advantage. When numerous characters just assume Ford is from the American Midwest, you believe it. He’s the character equivalent of dry toast and a glass of milk, but Fincher intends it. All the more disarming for doing this type of work, or disturbing when the job begins to take a toll. Among Fincher’s favorite themes is the corruption of idealism by drawing his protagonists into the underbelly of a world they previously admired. Think The Social Network’s Mark Zuckerberg. I won’t be the first reviewer to note Holden Ford’s own psychopathic, manipulative behavior as he interviews his subjects. But series creator Joe Penhall and his writers begin to overdo it, straining the audience’s belief. Later scenes of Ford openly Sherlock-ing situations in god-like hubris are a step too far.

Holt McCallany is excellent as his gruff, less idealistic partner, Bill Tench, with a face and haircut like granite. The 54-year-old actor has spent a career doing minor appearances and background work, but he makes the most of his starring role here, and it’s not hard to imagine it leading to other major work.

The show’s real acting find, however, is Cameron Britton as Ed Kemper. His take on the real-life six-foot-nine, highly intelligent serial killer is mesmerizing, and he steals every scene he’s in across a scattering of episodes. He’s manages to be physically imposing without being brutish, a looming physical threat that nevertheless makes you feel at ease. The contrast of his intelligence and affectless charm while he describes horrific acts is both endearing and unsettling, making it easy to see how people often mention feeling uncomfortable around such men while never making the effort to report them. He’s the personification of the creeping unease that inhabits the series, even as it never seems to explode into real danger – yet another Fincher hallmark.

However, the series is not without some major flaws, some of which are also Fincher trademarks. While Mindhunter excels with its male characters, the women largely get left out in the cold. Dr. Wendy Carr (Anna Torv), the academic psychologist who becomes part of Ford and Tench’s team, should function as the show’s third lead — yet it never succeeds in making her more than a sounding board for the pair’s efforts, left at home while the men go into the field to do the important work. One abbreviated episode attempts to provide her character with some backstory, but it’s never touched on again. She leaves her university job in Boston to move to Quantico, but aside from numerous scenes of cat feeding, her private life is left untouched for the remainder of the series. That stands in stark contrast to the well-done bread-crumbing of Tench’s family life which amps up as Mindhunter progresses.

Even worse is the storyline for Ford’s girlfriend, Debbie (Hannah Gross), a post-graduate student who only seems to appear when Ford needs someone to reflect his own emotions or have sex with. She’s the show’s biggest blunder, and that’s unfortunate. Fincher has always struggled with female characters, but you’d have thought a canvas as big as Mindhunter would have given him the opportunity to get it right. With all the serial killer investigation scenes that hint at “mommy issues” being a major factor, the show could have seriously benefitted from a couple of scenes with Debbie and Dr. Carr picking each other’s brains. Mindhunter makes a concerted effort to not be about serial killers, but rather the people who investigate them. How odd then that it leaves two of the show’s should-be central characters largely uninvestigated.

Equally unexplored is a series of vignettes that open most of the show’s episodes. They seem to reveal an unidentified man preparing for an attack on a woman, but they’re not related to any other part of the show’s plot. Any quick search of the internet reveals that this is supposed to be Dennis Rader, the BTK killer who was active in Kansas from 1974 to 1991. But it’s currently impossible to discern his relation to the plot since he wasn’t captured until nearly thirty-five years later than the show’s current timeline. As previously noted, Fincher claimed he didn’t want to make the show about serial killers, but Rader’s jarring inclusion seems to belie that point.

In the end, Mindhunter is a frustrating mix, undeniably watchable, but very obviously missing the ingredients to elevate it to true greatness. The performances are there. The design and technique are there. Now the show just needs the writing to match. The show could learn a little something from Halt and Catch Fire, which found success when it brought its female characters to the forefront. With a second season already greenlit by Netflix, Fincher and his team will have the chance to get it right. Here’s hoping. People love a good serial killer show — hopefully they get one that returns the love rather than just manipulating them for its own satisfaction.

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