Having just watched a couple of terrible movies simply because they came up on my Netflix suggestions, I was a bit wary of delving into its newest show about FBI agents in the late 70’s, who try to implement innovative techniques in their murder-solving process.
Then again, the fact that this is a story about the study of serial killers swayed whatever qualms I may have had. Plus, it’s a David Fincher project, so… sign me up.
The plot focuses on two FBI agents who start delving deeper into behavioral analysis by applying psychology – a novel idea at the time – to their study of “sequence” killers, in order to establish patterns that would accurately outline the killers’ motives. When they score their first win, by lending a hand to local law enforcement that results in a successful arrest, the two agents team up with a Boston-based psychology professor. They are reluctantly allowed by the higher-ups to run their operation out of a dingy basement in Quantico and are later awarded funding to continue traveling around the country to interview violent murderers who might help them understand what drives them to rape, kill, torture and/or mutilate their victims. Still, their journey remains quite a bumpy ride, from battling red tape or common misconceptions to earning the trust of their interview subjects as well as the very same law enforcement officials they are trying to help.
Is it a ground-breaking show? Not quite. In a post-CSI or Criminal Minds era, not to mention countless movies centering around the idea of profiling, the premise feels a little like old news. Nothing this show could do would ever top what Silence of the Lambs did a couple of decades earlier, after all. But the idea of setting aside the usual means-motive-opportunity template that was standard practice at the time was a ground-breaking idea in the 70’s, and watching it start to take form is oddly fascinating; particularly for fans of the genre who are already familiar with notorious serial killers like Son of Sam, Ed Kemper, Jerry Brudos or Richard Speck.
Unlike most crime procedurals or action-packed films, Mindhunter maitains its slow pace. This is usually a turn-off for me, but not when it’s a character-driven drama, involves carefully composed shots and pays attention to detail. Equally jarring is the fact that, for a show whose main driving plot point is the extreme violence perpetrated by the murderers Agents Ford and Tench conduct interviews with, there is actually no violence taking place on screen and what little glimpses we are afforded come by way of still photographs. I can only assume this is a deliberate choice on the part of the directors and screenwriters, in order to focus our attention solely on the character moments and their psychology.
Mindhunter deviates from the norm of cookie-cutter crime shows in several other ways: for one thing, instead of slowly revealing personality traits of its main characters, it brings them front and center right from the start. We get extended scenes depicting Bill Tench’s family life, Holden Ford’s relationship, Wendy Carr’s internal conflict. As the show progresses, we see the character moments intertwine with the very premise of the show: not only does working these cases greatly affect their personal lives, but it is also makes it plain that their investigative methods have overarching applications in every aspect of not just a criminal investigation, but their own personal lives as well.
The actual structure of the show is also a bit unsettling. Not only have they abandoned the usual case-per-episode format, but they have also shied away from focusing on one central mystery throughout the whole season. Instead, Holden and Bill’s journey takes us to a couple of small towns per 2 to 3 episode arcs, making the overall flow of the plot slightly uneven, but still managing to build up towards the finale.
Still, despite the original take on a common theme, the show isn’t without its flaws. For one thing, the whole 70’s vibe is so understated, it often becomes muted. Although the props department did a phenomenal job and the music choices are superb, the wardrobe, make-up and hair are too subtle to immediately suggest that the show does, in fact, take place in the late 70’s rather than a more recent time. Aside from a few oversize shirt collars and coat lapels, neither Holden and Bill nor Wendy’s appearance scream 70’s to me. Even though the earth-tone color schemes are on par with the era, the furnishings are mostly modern-looking enough to pass for contemporary. Perhaps it’s a deliberate stylistic choice in order to not alienate younger audiences, but the result just doesn’t feel realistic enough.
A good friend also had issues with Holden and how realistic the actor’s portrayal of the character was. To be fair, he does have a point: his looks suggest country bumpkin more so than badass FBI agent, but given how often the point is raised in the actual show, especially when his girlfriend and Bill’s wife poke fun at his Midwestern looks, I’m willing to overlook that. (Plus, he’s cute and smart, so he passes muster as far as I’m concerned).
More importantly, a lot of the dialogue feels trite, maybe because we’ve become so accustomed to cop-speak and psychology jargon. The cases the two agents investigate don’t offer much in the way of forensic procedure or surprising twists, both of them elements which we’re basically conditioned to expect from such shows; although it’s clear right from the start that we’re not supposed to expect these tropes, it takes a while to come to terms with the fact that Mindhunter isn’t about what we now consider a given, but how it came to be regarded as such.
To be honest, if it weren’t for its distinctive stylistic choices and character nuances, I’d be more inclined to view Mindhunter as a documentary in disguise, rather than pure fiction. And it’s these choices, as well as the subtle parallels drawn between the character’s personal and professional lives, that truly elevate the show. From Fincher’s signature camera movements and the way he blocks each shot – in an understated yet incredibly poignant and effective manner to direct our focus in each scene – to the actual character arcs, the show tells a much more substantial story than the one actually on screen.
The case studies we’re invited to examine mirror Holden, Bill and Wendy’s journeys beautifully; despite the unsettling rhythm I mentioned above, there’s a clear 3-act structure to their story, albeit a deviation to the classic setup-confrontation-resolution format. In the beginning, we see the team come together and define their objectives; we then follow their progress as they start to make headway. And by the end of the season (spoiler alert), we see the flaws in their methodology revealed as the characters face significant setbacks.
Holden’s confidence boost with each case takes a big hit when he eventually loses his girlfriend and is then bested by Kemper, his downfall being the exact same trait he had been using to his advantage all along: by being willing to get closer to his interview subjects in order to get inside their heads, he allows them to get inside his. On the other end of the spectrum, Bill’s family circumstances are no less troubled than they were to begin with, the happily-married-life facade crumbling under the weight of a difficult child he can’t bond with, much like he refuses to establish a connection with his case subjects in order to gain insight. Wendy’s decidedly more clinical approach also falters, as she not only drives a wedge between her team, but also sees her own methods fail in her efforts to combat her loneliness by trying to bond with a frightened, hungry cat in her apartment building: much like her rigid questionnaire didn’t yield results in Holden and Bill’s interviews, her give-and-take approach of leaving a can of tuna in the laundry room doesn’t gain her a new friend but a tinful of ants.
These parallels, even more than the actual story or the wonderful casting of the real life serial killers, are what tip the show towards a favorable review for me. The story is told subtly and with respect to the audience’s ability to grasp these callbacks, instead of pounding us over the head with the ‘deeper meaning’. It works so well, in fact, that I almost wish this was a standalone season. Much like Stranger Things, this feels like a complete story that doesn’t really require further exploration (hence my reluctance to spend the weekend bingeing on Season 2). In the new TV era where spectacular mini-series like A Night Of or Big Little Lies are content to tell their tale and leave it at that, it’s almost a shame that the writers and producers feel the need to expand the narrative over multiple seasons.