Mindhunter review: David Fincher kills it with his new Netflix show, one of the best of the year
Cast - Jonathan Groff, Holt McCallany
Rating - 4.5/5
There is a scene in the first episode of Mindhunter in which Holden Ford goes to the movies. He sits there, transfixed, ignoring his girlfriend’s head on his shoulder, and the walkouts. Before him, Al Pacino is yelling ‘Attica, Attica’ on the screen. In that nearly empty theatre, amid that apathetic crowd, Holden Ford is transformed. What he has just seen – a bank robbery picture called Dog Day Afternoon, in which cops try to reason with the criminals, instead of just shooting them up – has opened up a world of possibilities.
Holden works for the FBI – the behavioural science division, to be exact. It’s a new setup, approved only after Holden agreed to many conditions. The division’s job, at least as far as he is concerned, is to profile individuals with a criminal past, and try to understand what drove them to commit the crimes they have been convicted of. We’re talking only the most gruesome murders here, usually with sexual overtones. In one of his lectures – he also teaches at the FBI Academy – he shows scenes from Dog Day Afternoon, taking immense pleasure in shooting holes in the movie’s negotiation techniques.
It’s 1977 – Watergate is still a source of great embarrassment, as is the Vietnam War and the counter-culture movement that inspired Charles Manson to birth his Family. David Bowie and Led Zeppelin are on the radio, and saffron-clad bald men are on the streets, chanting ‘Hare Krishna’ to anyone within earshot.
It’s a time of disillusionment, and like everyone else, Holden just wants to make sense of it all. His rapid rise within the FBI raised more than a few eyebrows, and afforded him certain luxuries, but it has been largely unfulfilling. His chief is oppressively old school in his ideas, the sort of person who waves away concerns after a jilted lover blew his brains out during a hostage negotiation. No bystanders were harmed, he says, and that’s a win in his book.
Holden’s argument: Criminals – murderers, rapists – aren’t born evil. As a child, Charles Manson was beaten, and repeatedly institutionalised. His mother spent her days alternating between brothels and jails. Charles Manson, Holden says, wasn’t born, he was created. He was turned into a monster by the world he grew up in.
And it is with these radical, and frankly unpopular ideas that Holden takes his jittery first steps into the world of behavioural sciences. He’s paired up with Bill Tench – played by Holt McCallany, an actor born to play cops, evidenced by a decades-long career of doing exactly that – and together, they devise a bold new strategy. They would travel the country under the pretence of conducting workshops for local police departments, but in their spare time, they’d arrange for personal meetings with some of the most infamous killers in America in an attempt to understand how their mind works.
They become Mindhunters. Cue the ominous music.
Of course, Thomas Harris famously explored this landscape in his Hannibal Lecter novels – particularly The Silence of the Lambs, which was inspired by the work of Special Agent John E Douglas, Holden’s real-life counterpart. There are several, expertly-crafted scenes of dialogue between Holden, Bill and the notorious mass-murderer, Ed Kemper, that are eerily similar to Clarice Starling’s exchanges with Dr Hannibal Lecter. And they’re as good as any we’ve seen in that classic film.
But of course they are. How could they not be? Now would be as good a time as any to mention that Mindhunter, this gorgeously cinematic new series on Netflix, is a product of the twisted mind of David Fincher. He directed four of the ten episodes – the bookends – and watching him maneuver this world, a world with which he has always shown endless fascination, is like watching Martin Scorsese make another gangster picture, or Steven Spielberg taking off into space.
It’s fitting, for a series so obsessed with understanding the psychology of its characters, to itself be driven entirely by the decisions they make. As Holden and Bill’s quest inside the heads of these men collides with their personal lives, we see changes – subtle changes, like how they dress – that drive the story more strongly than any particular twist in the narrative.
David Fincher doesn’t let the material define his style, he adapts it to suit what he does best – better than anyone who has ever picked up a camera. Now would also be as good a time as any to mention that he is – as he has been for almost a decade – my favourite director. This is him mucking about in his comfort zone, but that shouldn’t be a reason to discount his achievements here.
For him to revisit this darkness – the depraved fringes of humanity that he periodically finds himself attracted to, in films like Se7en, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and Zodiac – and to create a work of art that is at par with those movies, is worth throwing a national holiday for.
Mindhunter is the story of how a very particular term came into being, a term that would inspire thousands of works of fiction – books, comics, music, and movies, especially those of David Fincher.
After having interviewed dozens of ‘deviants’ and ‘disturbed’ individuals, Holden and Bill realise that they’re dealing with unprecedented information. They’re going to have to come up with a new name for these guys. They look at each other, bounce ideas, and settle on one.
They’d call them ‘serial killers’.
Watch the Mindhunter trailer here