The year was 1977, and the world was changing. In the wake of the Charles Manson murders, a new breed of killers seemed to have emerged out of the stasis of the late-seventies. These killing sprees were aberrant, aggressive, and meaningless—strangers killing strangers. This may not initially seem like a particularly novel time to set a crime show, as we’ve been inundated with countless procedurals and dramas dealing with serial killers over the years. Nonetheless, we remain fascinated with serial killers, as evidenced by the celebrity-like notoriety and publicity given to the likes of David Berkowitz and Ted Bundy. Netflix’s newest show takes us back to a time when we were still wondering what drove these men to kill, while also questioning why killers always seem to peak our interest.
The show documents the spontaneous formation of the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit in Quantico, Va. As the FBI began taking note of these “sequence killers,” special agents Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) and Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) take it upon themselves to begin interviewing notorious killers around the country, hoping to glean some insight into what drove these men to kill. Of course, this entire idea was initially frowned upon by most other police officers and FBI officials who resisted the psychological complexity and inherent humanization that come with analyzing these killers. To them, it’s much easier to view these men as inhuman, preferring to believe that killers were born bad. Tench and, especially, Ford are far more open to embracing these complications, as they soon form a modest behavioral science task force operating out of the FBI Academy’s basement.
Tench is very much the “typical” FBI agent, with a wide figure and hardened disposition that hints at a long and dark history working at the bureau. Still, the show’s protagonist is Ford, a younger agent whose doe-eyed naivety eventually turns into a deep, unhealthy obsession and arrogance. Tench and Ford eventually team up with Dr. Wendy Carr (Anna Torv), a psychologist from Boston University who brings a theoretical background to studying these killers. She also serves as a needed foil to Tench’s bruting masculinity and Ford’s oblivious arrogance. Torv’s performance seems to command attention, as even her stride seems to exude a certain powerful grace. This works, in part, because she is revealed to be the most levelheaded of the bunch.
So much of the show’s success has to do with the writing, since there is very little action. Mindhunter is very much a show based around vignettes, as Tench and Ford travel across the country to interview various killers, while also using these new techniques to catch murderers at-large. Thus, many episodes are centered around tense and challenging conversations between our friends in the FBI and homicidal madmen. These conversations are deftly shot and crafted, making them rightly engrossing—you want to look away, but you can’t. Part of this great success has to do with the casting of these killers. These actors, who are mostly unknown, replicate the sleazy mannerisms of these men, while emphasizing the perplexing charm that these killers used to manipulate so many people.
After hearing all this, it should come as no surprise that David Fincher (The Social Network, Fight Club) was the leading force behind this series. He produced the show and directed four episodes—his authorial stamp is all over this series. Besides the characteristically cool color scheme and precise camera movements, Mindhunter’s subject matter is also reflective of Fincher’s interests. Fincher has made a name for himself by mostly steering clear of traditional dramas, and opting for making exquisitely shot crime and genre films. In that way, this director’s foray into long-form storytelling seemed inevitable, since the types of stories he tells easily lend themselves to sprawling narratives. This series works well as a companion piece to his 2007 masterpiece, Zodiac.
Granted, this series won’t be for everybody, as it pulls no punches while investigating the deep recesses of the serial killer’s mind. Part of the horror also comes from the fact that this show was based on actual investigations and interviews between the FBI and serial killers in the late 1970s. These men actually existed, and Fincher and the creative team make a valiant effort to ask meaningful questions about the nature of these disturbed men, and our infatuation with them.
Featured Image by Netflix