David Fincher’s extraordinarily dark crime drama Mindhunter poses a question that will be explored over the course of the series: what makes heinous criminals do the things they do?
The answer is likely to be multifaceted and elusive, and if the two episodes screened for review ahead of the series launch on Friday are anything to go by, rather harrowing, too.
Based on the real-life experiences of former FBI Agent John E. Douglas, the show charts the inception of the FBI’s criminal profiling programme in the late 1970s, as detailed in his book Mindhunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit. Many of the crimes, which are shocking and brutal, are real; as are the murderers involved – and while the Gone Girl director manages to sprinkle in some bleak humour, the darkness is almost all-consuming. For this reason, a binge-watch is almost out of the question for anyone other than seasoned true-crime obsessives.
But with a minute to digest, and perhaps something short, warm and soapy as a chaser, Mindhunter flourishes into a captivating and visually striking drama that looks likely to become increasingly intriguing as the series wears on.
The drama centres around FBI agents Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) and Bill Tench (Holt McCallany), the former being a soft-spoken, intellectually curious new addition to the Bureau’s Behavioural Science Unit, the latter a war-weary, yet sympathetic member of the old guard who had helped to set the unit up.
After an introduction by their boss Shepherd (Cotter Smith), the duo embark on a journey across the US preaching the word of the BSU to local police officers, a trip which allows Ford to explore some of his notions about criminal behaviour.
While their relationship can tend towards buddy cop cliche, the rapport between Groff and McCallany breathes life into the series at its darkest moments. It’s a relatively slow-build, but the two episodes serve as a strong introduction to the show’s main premise, which sees the two agents touring the country and interviewing some of the most notorious criminals in modern American history. Sound claustrophobic? Thankfully, they’re good company.
Fincher, who directed four out of the ten episodes, has explored the criminal mind in the past: recently in his adaptation of pop-lit success Gone Girl; most effectively in 1990s serial killer classic Se7en.
But Mindhunter bears greatest resemblance to 2007’s underrated, Jake Gyllenhaal-led Zodiac – which, notably, was a critical hit and a box office flop. Like its predecessor – a thriller about the real-life manhunt for a serial killer in San Francisco in the 1960s and 70s – the show posits an eerie portrayal of suburban US life under the threat of unfathomable evil. As they journey from state to state, they encounter dumbfounded officers dealing with seemingly inexplicable horrors, such as an elderly woman beaten senseless and sexually assaulted, with no likely perpetrator in sight. Their goal is to learn how to solve these crimes – to find the needle in a haystack through the means of a psychological education.
Apart from the odd interjection of blood and gore, the show’s gruesomeness is predominantly in its language – crimes are described in disturbing detail by police officers and, more affectingly, by the criminals themselves, with zero hint of remorse.
In his 25 year career, Douglas – who was the inspiration for Groff’s Ford – interviewed infamous killers such as Charles Manson, The Boston Strangler and John Wayne Gacy, and while it is not yet clear who will be covered in the series’ ten-episode run, the first couple of episodes introduces us to a villain of equal disrepute in Edmund Kemper, a 6’9” psychopath who murdered his grandparents, his mother and several young women before handing himself in to police officers in the 1970s.
Kemper is a disturbing presence, played with creepy stoicism by Cameron Britton – and a particularly haunting figure to have been chosen to serve as the jumping off point. It’s a baptism of fire for the show’s viewers, and likely a marker of things to come.
Aside from Groff’s blossoming relationship with a sociology student – who he meets, rather fortuitously, amidst a career crisis and points him in the direction of criminal psychology – there is little respite from the serial killer business – so strap in and prepare for a bumpy ride.