Successful serial killers are elusive because they’re able to wear a daily mask better than most, their interior lives hidden from the world and the people that surround them.
Mindhunter, director David Fincher’s latest Netflix endeavor (4 out of 10 epsiodes of which he directed), is a police procedural series that explores this idea. As human beings, we naturally build a façade that acts as protection, if only to make others feel more comfortable. You see, if we were to let our deepest, darkest secrets, emotions, and intentions spill out into our respective realities, the result would probably be unfavorable and pretty shitty.
Based on the book Mind Hunter: Inside the FBI's Elite Serial Crime Unit written by John E. Douglas and Mark Olshaker, Mindhunter tells the story of Holden Ford (theater actor Jonathan Groff) and Bill Tench (Holt McCallany), two FBI agents who specialize in behavioral science and travel across America doling out tips to local police forces in order to educate them about criminal profiling and solving cases. In their spare time, they make a side-project out of visiting inmates committed for brutally violent crimes, drawing out as much information as they can from subjects like necrophiliac Ed Kemper (a hulking Cameron Brittion), the Co-Ed Butcher who murdered a total of 10 victims.
Ford is young, cocky, and methodical; while Tench is seasoned, rough around the edges, and harbors a wisdom that goes far beyond his bullish exterior. With the help of Dr. Wendy Carr (the icy yet seductive Anna Torv who your probably remember from Fringe), a psychologist in the academe, their unit forges the groundwork that acts as a catalyst for the evolution of criminal psychology.
You might think this is all formulaic stuff—a pair of stereotypical gumshoe detectives pit together for another noir-ish show about catching psychopaths and throwing them in jail. And that’s where you’ll be wrong, because Mindhunter carves an identity for itself outside of what pop culture has already mined from this genre. Yes, there are psychos (famous ones at that), but they’re already behind bars, and are subjected to pressing interviews and eye-opening conversations from our rather imperfect heroes. This show is about the words that escape the lips of these atypical creatures of habit, the necessary probing, the deep dive into the cavernous recesses of the mind. The horrifying acts of these social outcasts aren’t even exploited for shock—restraint here becomes key in titillating and unlocking the viewer’s own illicit desires. The most interesting aspects of the show aren’t in the scenes where said deviants take centerstage, but in the personal events that transpire in the lives of both Ford and Tench, whose back and forth musings are foiled by the foxy Dr. Carr’s superior intellect.
Fans of Fincher’s body of work will find solace in his signature aesthetic: a grim color palette that fluctuates between garish yellows, cool blues, and flat grays depending on the emotional context of what’s happening onscreen—a very fly representation of a 1977 that seems eons ago. The office spaces, precincts, and suburban households that serve as the setting of all the suspenseful drama are often barely lit, shadows creeping up and out of corners you didn’t even know existed. The mood is always one of dread, a nuanced form of comedy cutting through the tension every so often.
Mindhunter is an exercise in manifesting the intangible through sheer tone and dialogue that cuts through the skin like a shiny knife. Its genius is that it knows that, underneath it all, beneath the flesh and the blood and the bones, we’re all hiding something, leasing space in our own heads for thoughts and motivations and wants that no one can ever learn about.
Mindhunter is currently streaming on Netflix.