Mindhunter: American psychos

As season two of David Fincher’s acclaimed true-crime drama hits small screens everywhere, we take a look at how, even when he's not directing, the series proves inseparable from his theatrical work.

15 August 2019

By Elena Lazic

Mindhunter (2017-)

When Mindhunter arrived on small screens in 2017, the popularity of true-crime ‘entertainment’ had reached an all-time high. The Serial podcast was widely celebrated and TV’s Making a Murderer (2015-) had already made its debut. Outstanding documentary series O.J.: Made in America (2016) had premiered and Ryan Murphy’s own dramatisation of the same story, American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson (2016), followed closely behind.

One of the reasons Mindhunter did not get lost in this sea of true-crime entertainment is the fact that it offers something others do not. Following the people who were the very first to ask of serial killers and other murderers not just “how do we stop them?”, but also “why do they do the things they do?”, the show goes to the very source of our collective fascination with those criminals in a way others did not.

It is hard to believe that there was a time when asking this question was perceived as a grotesque, unnecessary, and almost insulting waste of time which would only grant murderers the attention they crave. Today, anyone who has seen even just a snatch of Law & Order: SVU (1999-) or any other crime television series is familiar with the idea that there is a method to the madness of serial killers, and that more often than not, violent behaviours originate in childhood. In fact, early episodes of Mindhunter at times feel peculiarly on the nose, as young FBI Agent Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff), our lead character, marvels at these now relatively commonplace concepts, then struggles to communicate them to his bosses at the FBI. But these moments are also perversely chilling, reminding us that the reason why this way of thinking about murder appeared so outlandish in 1977 was because, at the time, so did serial killers.

Mindhunter (2017-)

“The motive has become elusive,” Holden says at the start. In the late 1970s, American authorities are dealing with a new kind of murderer who does not kill people he knows for any easily identified reason (money, jealousy, revenge), but instead attacks strangers, with motives that are much harder to fathom. As Holden and his colleagues from the FBI’s then relatively new Behavioural Science Unit, Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) and Wendy Carr (Anna Torv), take a closer look at these horrific events, it is immensely satisfying to see them try to make sense of seemingly random, incomprehensible acts of violence. On its most superficial level, Mindhunter is enjoyable in the same way that most true crime podcasts and TV shows are: as a dramatic procedural. 

That David Fincher provides the show’s stylistic guide therefore isn’t surprising. His clinical, cold, and highly efficient aesthetic has already lent itself to such procedural delights in the past. Whether they concern actual investigations – Seven (1995), Zodiac (2007), The Social Network (2010) (to some degree), The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011), and Gone Girl (2014) – or simply people working out some kind of mystery, as in The Game (1997), Fight Club (1999), Panic Room (2002), his films are more often associated with witty narrative tricks and a neat visual style than with outbursts of emotion. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008) is the exception that confirms the rule. 

The Social Network and, to an extent, Gone Girl, both follow robot-like characters who appear utterly detached from their emotions, and the same could be said of Holden Ford in Mindhunter. Disturbingly calm even when discussing the most heinous crimes in detail, Holden is too focused on working out the ghastly puzzle to pay attention to the utter horror of it all. In the show as in Fincher’s other film work, the slick visuals and the borderline stilted, unnatural performances from the cast underline this sense of cold rationality throughout.

But in all of these examples, Fincher has always ultimately proved less interested in those cool facades than in seeing them crack — less fascinated by the appearance of order than by the undercurrent of violent emotions bubbling underneath. That he has so often found this contrast in the figure of the straight, white, American male is testament to both its prevalence in American stories, and to the director’s perceptive eye.

Mindhunter (2017-)

In Fight Club, the dissatisfied American male is so out of touch with his feelings that he projects them into an alter-ego. Somewhat similarly in The Social Network, Jesse Eisenberg’s incarnation of Mark Zuckerberg sublimates his feelings of rejection into a highly successful website. Meanwhile, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Gone Girl both centre on ice-cold women who became this way in response to the callous and cruel manner in which (straight, white, mediocre) men have treated them in the past. 

But when it comes to people who can’t deal with their feelings, no one can beat the (practically always white, male, and most often straight) American serial killer. Expressing his frustration by violently murdering strangers, he has proved to be Fincher’s favourite subject, with SevenZodiac, and now Mindhunter. Though the two films are key texts in the canon of serial killer cinema, Mindhunter is the director’s most thorough investigation into what exactly makes them simultaneously so fascinating and so disturbing. 

While both Seven and Zodiac in large part chronicled the chase for active serial killers, Mindhunter focuses mostly on criminals who are already behind bars. Instead of trying to catch up with murderers on the run, agents Ford, Tench and Carr can calmly interview them, focusing not on the act of killing itself, but on its possible causes or explanations. As such, and unlike most other shows or films on the subject, Mindhunter directly points at the contrast between the savage, seemingly primal and random nature of the killings, and the organisational skills and rationality of the murderer. The fact that a person could be both so logical and so monstrous is at the heart of our fascination for serial murder. 

Mindhunter (2017-)

It is what attracts Holden Ford. Convinced that there must be ways to understand these acts, he is the one who initiates research from the Behavioural Science Unit. The small team’s profiling methods — then rather new and unpopular — soon bring them success in smalltown murderer cases, proving that the young agent really is onto something. As he battles the old-fashioned ways of his superiors, we are there with him through thick and thin.

But our allegiance is challenged near the season’s ending. Suddenly, Holden is arrogant and condescending, miles away from the generous and attentive young man he was at the beginning of the show. Ready to do or say anything to get the results he wants, he threatens to jeopardise the study’s legitimacy, the team’s funding and its solidity. 

The show does not try to make the reasons for this sudden change of behaviour appear in any way sophisticated: Holden is mad because his girlfriend Debbie (Hannah Gross) has cheated on him. But instead of taking it like an adult, he takes it like a man and becomes stubborn, mean, and borderline sexist. Though he does not realise it, he is following the same (basic) thought patterns and embracing the same toxic masculinity which he identified in the serial killers he interviewed. In one of the show’s scariest moments, this formerly very polite boy leaves a meeting with the Office of Professional Responsibility that is investigating his increasingly presumptuous interview techniques, muttering “The only mistake I made was ever doubting myself.” 

Mindhunter (2017-)

It is a brush with death that will ultimately get him out of this bad trip. In the first series’ final, best episode, Holden is called to the hospital as the ‘close contact’ of Edmund Kemper (Cameron Britton), one of the serial killers he has extensively interviewed. When the imposing man, who had cut his wrists for the sole purpose of getting Holden to visit him again, hugs the agent, Holden escapes from his embrace and collapses in the corridors of the hospital, in the throes of a full-blown panic attack. So eager was he to succeed, so seduced by Kemper’s neat explanations for his own murderous impulse, that the agent temporarily forgot an important detail: that man wasn’t just a misogynistic bachelor, he was also a cold-blooded killer.

While Mindhunter brilliantly reveals toxic masculinity as a cause behind serial killers’ motives, it also avoids making too easy a leap between the two, highlighting in that chilling final scene that there is something extra that pushes certain men to murder: the simple will to kill. In the figure of the terrified Holden, unable to breathe on the hospital floor, the show critiques the nerdy and unemotional impulse behind much of our fascination with serial killers. 

With trailers suggesting that a mysterious man — heavily featured in the first season and ultimately revealed to be one of the most infamous serial killers in American history — will play an even bigger part in new episodes, it seems safe to assume that season two will see the agents from the Behavioural Science Unit finally try to put their theory to use to stop active serial killers. That we already know that this murderer was only arrested in the 1990s does not bode well for Holden and co.

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