If you want to make an exciting family adventure, you hire Steven Spielberg. If you’re making an epic science-fiction blockbuster, you call J.J. Abrams. If you’re telling a story about murder and the darkest and most morally bankrupt recesses of the human mind, well then, you get David Fincher.
No one will be surprised then to find that Netflix’s new drama series, Mindhunter, fits the 55-year-old auteur filmmaker’s MO like a glove. Fincher directs the first two episodes as well as the last two, and it’s clear from the fascinating and explosive first scene that the audience is in very safe hands.
Dedicated fans of Fincher’s work will recognize his directorial stamp on the series from the smooth mounted camera motions to its dark and atmospheric color palette. His characters are real and fleshed-out but never generic enough to feel predictable or safe. In that respect, FBI Agent Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) fits right alongside the Narrator and Robert Graysmith as another of Fincher’s dubious and memorable protagonists.
The series begins in 1977, shortly before the sentencing of David Berkowitz. From the very start, it’s made very clear that Ford is an outlier in the Bureau in his fascination for criminal psychology. He works as an instructor at Quantico on hostage negotiation, but we learn as the crux of the series that the FBI’s handbook on criminality is quickly becoming outdated. Crime has changed, but Ford is the only one who believes the method for catching criminals has to change with it.
But Mindhunter is fascinated with far more than simply a plucky young cop going against the grain to solve crimes. The show is deeply rooted in the varying philosophies that make up the criminal studies it centers around. In one excellent scene, Holden chats up a pretty girl at a bar and before long they start talking about Durkheim’s labeling theory on deviancy.
Ford is clearly not a character who has all the answers about how to fix the broken system, and due to his status as the audience-perspective character, every conversation that delves into these competing theories feels as illuminating to us as the audience as it does to him.
But the time period also plays a critical role in crafting Mindhunter’s character and themes. The effects of the US government on the 1960s and 70s makes some big ripples in the everyday citizens’ and students’ perception of Ford and the bureau as a whole. These interactions lead to some engaging moments in the dialogue and lay the foundation for the series’ discussion on themes of morality, law and order, and of perceptions changing over time.
In another great scene, Holden and his girlfriend, Hannah, go on a date to see Dog Day Afternoon. As he watches it, we are able to see exactly how his mind is working as the Hollywood caricature of a hostage negotiator deals with Al Pacino. He is enthralled with understanding Sonny’s character, not as a criminal but as a person. In this moment, we learn more about that fascination he has with understanding the real criminals he deals with.
Direction like this is what makes Fincher the perfect candidate to tell stories such as this. He utilizes his actors, cameras, setting and script to convey these ideas without the need for dialogue to spell it out.
The director and genre makes obvious comparisons to his 2007 masterpiece, Zodiac. But where Zodiac was about the psychology of obsession and tracking a killer from the journalistic and public perspective, Mindhunter is able to delve deeper into the details of murder and the psychology behind it from the perspective inside the FBI. I look forward to seeing how filling his life with such disturbing individuals and imagery will affect Ford’s mind, and wonder if a rabbit hole similar to Graysmith’s awaits him.
Fincher has always had a knack for utilizing great casts without relying on star power to sell the project. Jonathan Groff is instantly charming as Ford, but he effortlessly becomes a part of his world without needing to chew the scenery or draw attention to himself. As a result, the supporting characters are given room to breathe and the whole world just feels organic and natural. Joe Penhall’s writing lends itself to crafting this world based on John Douglas’ book, and he creates a spellbinding protagonist as well as a breathing recreation of 1970s America.
But where Mindhunter shines the most is in how it doesn’t need Aaron Sorkin dialogue or grisly murder scenes or a Tyler Durden-esque sociopath or Kevin Spacey talking directly to the camera to keep us invested. The pilot episode is really just a series of various conversations, but thanks to Fincher’s hypnotically masterful direction I felt more a part of it than I have in any other TV or film experience I’ve had this year.
I chuckled when Holden had a smart comeback, I was frustrated when he was blocked by old-school bureau practices, and I was happy when he made headway on learning more about his field. The series doesn’t need set piece moments or bombastic writing to appeal to us. Instead it commits to its central character and crafts a narrative around him that feels just as compelling as any of Fincher’s stories.
In doing so, Mindhunter feels very much like Fincher telling the audience he doesn’t need any of these tentpole tropes or scenes to continue to tell great stories in spectacular fashion. You just need the talent.
I suspect Mindhunter is to be one of these series that is designed to be more of an extended movie than a continuous episodic series. It’s difficult to predict what direction the show will take after its premiere, but it doesn’t seem conducive to a multi-season format like House of Cards or Orange is the New Black. This is a great start to a series on an immediately fascinating topic, and I can’t wait to dive back in to see what’s in store.