Mindhunter: Season One Review
After conquering the big screen with acclaimed, widely successful films such as The Social Network and Gone Girl, director David Fincher has spent the last few years trying to get projects off the ground on the small screen. He is, after all, responsible for kick-starting the TV streaming revolution with Netflix’s House of Cards (which he executive produces, and directed the pilot episode for), but attempts in 2015 to get two HBO series in to production stalled quickly. Despite teaming up once again with Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn, with a cast that boasted Rooney Mara among others, his US adaptation of cult Channel 4 series Utopia was shut down days before filming started. Then, a second HBO series, a comedy set during the early days of the music video era, similarly vanished without trace shortly after.
The director has now returned to Netflix with Mindhunter, from creator Joe Penhall and loosely adapted from a non fiction book of the same name. Unfortunately for Penhall, his name is likely to fade in to the background, as discussion about the creative direction of Mindhunter will largely revolve around its recurrent director (Fincher handles four episodes throughout the season). The filmmaker’s blackly comic and psychotically disturbing aesthetic looms large over every frame, sitting so perfectly in his comfort zone, that the other established directors who take the reigns elsewhere in the series feel indistinctive by comparison. This is largely because the true crime narrative is incredibly similar to his 2007 masterpiece Zodiac- right down to the socially awkward characterisation of the lead role, performed exquisitely here by Jonathan Groff.
Groff plays Holden Ford, who we meet teaching trainee law enforcers the ins and outs of hostage negotiation. He isn’t a natural to teaching, due to his overly formal personality- but immediately befriends a fellow teacher, Bill Tench (Holt McCallany). Discovering they both share a common interest in criminal psychology, they plan brand new research interviewing some of America’s most psychopathic convicts, to see if their answers to questions can help uncover a newer understanding of criminal’s minds that can help deter crimes prior to being committed. Together, they are the founding members of the FBI’s behavioural science unit, and are soon (reluctantly) given bonus funding, as well as a new esteemed colleague in the shape of psychologist Dr Wendy Carr (Anna Torv). However, despite only being given an allotted “ten hours a week” to conduct their research, it soon begins to denominate their professional lives- and in the case of Holden’s personal life, the relationship with his girlfriend (Hannah Gross) too.
If there is a flaw in this darkly entertaining first season, it’s that Groff’s Holden Ford is the only character afforded something approaching an arc- his social awkwardness transforming in to an increasingly inflated ego, with a growing disregard for ethical practice. Which isn’t to say that the other characters aren’t richly drawn, or uninteresting in comparison. The issue is that as the season progresses, they mainly exist to survey the fallout of Holden’s actions, be they proposing to interview Charles Manson, or using criminally tinged dialogue in conversations with prisoners in order to create an environment that unleashes their inner psychosis. Multiple minor characters laud him as the “real life Sherlock Holmes”, and that is true in the extent that his obsessive personality looms so large over the show, the lives of other characters are never explored as thoroughly.
The Sherlock Holmes comparison isn’t a cheap, flippant gag- both characters have impulsive behaviour, with Holden frequently appearing to be heading down a path better suited to an anti-hero, even as he remains on the right side of the law. Initially presented as somebody with a severe lack of awareness when it comes to social interactions, his increasing ability to get inside criminal’s minds and imitate their way of speaking suggests the show may deviate from its true crime origins for a more straightforward thriller route. Groff’s performance is highly commendable, due to how it subtly subverts everything we come to expect from a cocky FBI agent in a TV crime drama- equally selling the clumsy awkwardness and the master criminal manipulator he eventually becomes, in a manner that feels intrinsically tied to the character’s development.
Elsewhere in the ensemble, the recurrent appearances by various imprisoned serial killers have the same undercurrent of intense menace as The Silence of the Lambs- and as a matter of coincidence, the character of Jack Crawford in Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lector novels was based on the real life criminal investigators too. Of the guest actors, the biggest impression is made by Cameron Britton, who manages to be effortlessly unsettling as real life mass murdering necrophiliac Edmund Kemper. Even when in handcuffs, the actor’s physical presence is still nothing less than terrifying, combined with chilling line deliveries that help move the series closer to horror territory than the other darkly comic serial killer interviews elsewhere.
The show isn’t afraid to deviate from its non fiction origins, in order to explore the themes surrounding the development of criminal psychology in a far reaching manner that’s easily encapsulated in the format of a typical CSI-style populist procedural. In its second season (already in production), expect the show to play fast and loose with the truth to an even greater extent, furthering the development of these composite characters and bending the factual elements of the storyline to easily fit in their descent to madness.
Mindhunter is a gleefully preposterous criminal procedural drama, with enough stylish direction and subtle genre subversion to help the premise feel fresh- and compulsively watchable, even when it’s apparent that what we are seeing is closer to fiction than truth.