Netflix’s Mindhunter is an effectively unsettling drama that offers an appealingly methodical and different take on the typical police procedural.
It has been three years since the last David Fincher project was in theaters. That was Gone Girl, Fincher’s striking adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s novel of the same name. Since that time, the director has been working to get two television projects, Utopia (again with Flynn) and the music video comedy Video Synchronicity off the ground, both of which were at HBO until they proved to be going nowhere. After that Fincher returned to his familiar stomping grounds – both at Netflix where he has executive produced the long-running House of Cards, and to the realm of the serial killer drama, which he’s delved into with films like Seven, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and what might be his best film to date, Zodiac – to bring the methodical and gorgeous-looking Mindhunter to life.
The series, based on the non-fiction book Mind Hunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit by Mark Olshaker and John E. Douglas, challenges the typical serial killer formula by largely diverting its attention away from the task of watching an investigation unfold and instead focusing its energies on trying to understand psychopathy and the minds of those who kill with the hope that that insight will help prevent future loss of life. Set in the late 1970s, Mindhunter unfolds during the early days of the FBI Behavioral Sciences division’s foray into criminal psychology and the nascent field of profiling, particularly as it pertained to the study of serial killers – or “sequential killers” as they’re initially called. Though billed as a serial killer drama, the series is in no way the standard cat-and-mouse thriller that typifies the genre, and is instead a detailed exploration of some very unsettling lines of research and the glacial bureaucracy that can impede the progress of innovation, especially when it goes up against what is commonly thought to be accepted practice.
Much of the drama comes from the attempts by Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) and his partner Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) to understand the individuals they’re talking to and, because the series can’t simply be two guys recording their discussions with serial killers, sometimes pursuing. But the emphasis isn’t on capturing elusive killers, instead it’s on the pursuit of comprehension and the quest to change the practices of a system that has in many ways grown antiquated in its techniques and remains in the dark with regard to understanding a unique brand of criminal that it’s tasked with pursuing. The result, then, is a police procedural that’s about changing the procedure.
Watching the first two Fincher-directed episodes, you can see what drew him to the material. Even after Fincher hands the directing reins to Asif Kapadia, Tobias Lindholm, and Andrew Douglas (before returning to helm the final two episodes of the 10-episode season) Mindhunter shares a strong connection his 2007 true-crime film. In many ways, Mindhunter feels like it could have been Zodiac: The Television Series. But rather than fictionalize a terrifying true story that gripped the nation, this is much more truth-adjacent series that makes use of the degree to which its main characters – including Fringe‘s Anna Torv as Dr. Wendy Carr – are based on real people but with different names, granting the series a little more leeway with regard to the exploration of the interiors of their lives.
Like any good cop drama, Mindhunters wants to show the way in which the grisly details of the job begin to wear on the people working them. It’s a little different in this case, as Ford and Tench aren’t like Marty Hart and Rust Cohle; they aren’t living a single murder case every waking moment. Instead, they’re subjecting themselves to a discussion of the crime and its motivations well after the fact. Their first subject is Ed Kemper (Cameron Britton) a real-life serial killer who murdered several young women (or “co-eds”) in the early ’70s, and whose fascination with police work and authority made him an astonishingly agreeable and presumably forthcoming interview subject. And over the course of the first three episodes, Mindhunter manages to weave an intriguing story about Ford and Tench’s budding relationship with their difficulties getting the FBI to sign off on their research. All of this unfolds while also uncovering how their approaches and relatively different levels of empathy create an unconventional but surprisingly successful working relationship.
But the series takes its time, and it takes that time seriously. Like Zodiac, those expecting a breakneck cop drama will be sorely disappointed. But for those looking for something that is both gorgeous to look at and different from the usual serial killer series, you’ve likely come to the right place. Mindhunter is deliberately paced but never boring or inert. Long segments are spent watching agents discuss the merits of what they’re investigating and researching, and equally long segments are spent listening to killers try to explain why it is they did what they did. It’s unpleasant material a lot of the time and you wouldn’t be wrong in worrying the series may tip over into glorifying its real-life subjects and their crimes. Thankfully that isn’t the case, as the empathy displayed by Groff’s Ford is often tempered by McCallany’s thinly veiled disgust and their assurances to one another that this is a necessary means to an end.
As deliberately paced prestige dramas go, one delivered by David Fincher will always feel welcome. With both its subject matter and meticulous delivery, Mindhunter isn’t going to satisfy everyone, but for those looking to step outside the norms of the typical police procedural, it will make for a rewarding binge watch.
Mindhunter season 1 is available in its entirety on Netflix.
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