Mindhunter, the latest project from the perfectionist visionary David Fincher, is a show that often holds itself above the tired dullness of the cop genre, but not nearly enough. Its ten brief episodes follow Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff), an inquisitive FBI instructor in 1977 that develops an avid interest in criminal profiling research, interviewing some of America’s most detestable real-life serial killers to better understand what makes them tick. Joining him on his quest is the hesitant Special Agent Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) and psychology professor Dr. Wendy Carr (Anna Torv). The show is entirely a slow-burn police procedural, very much in the vein of Fincher’s 2007 masterpiece Zodiac, but never quite soaring to those heights. The script is just too muddled, especially towards its center. Mindhunter can’t seem to figure out whether it wants to be cinematic or episodic, True Detective or Criminal Minds, and this narrative confusion detracts significantly from the overall product. Still though, there are moments scattered throughout that so clearly hint at its brilliance that it’s hard not to be excited by the show’s future potential and disappointed by its failure to live up to that promise thus far.
For a slow-burn of any kind to succeed, you need compelling characters and interactions to hold your audience’s attention. In this regard, Mindhunter manages quite well. Holden Ford’s character is one of the most vocal criticisms of the show, but one that I don’t share. Sure, he’s incredibly self-centered and emotionally immature, but I found his portrayal by Jonathan Groff rather engaging throughout. You can see his thought process so visibly that it’s almost like it’s being narrated to you (which it often is, he never shuts up). Furthermore, his slow slide into unethical and repulsive interview methodology in pursuit of more dramatic results is an interesting transition. Holt McCallany is even more enthralling as Bill Tench, a disgruntled middle-aged cop with a reluctant moral compass. Tench is admittedly the closest to a classic police archetype, but his magnetic screen presence and chemistry with the rest of the cast more than makes up for any blandness in his character’s traits.
By far the weakest of the trio is Dr. Wendy Carr, a psychologist who takes an interest in Ford and Tench’s project before jumping aboard herself. Anna Torv herself is a fine enough actress, convincingly conveying her character’s intelligence and passion for criminology. Her characterization by the script though is contrived, pointless, and often boring. About halfway through the season, Carr is revealed to be a lesbian and we meet her girlfriend, an obnoxiously condescending bourgeoisie academic that looks down on Carr’s work and urges her to stop wasting her time. In response, Carr leaves the university and joins Holden’s team full time, and we never again go back to this character trait or her girlfriend. Besides that, she really doesn’t get any further character development outside of her interactions with Holden and Bill, which is a shame and feels like wasted potential.
Much of the show’s appeal and best scenes occur in Holden’s interviews with serial killers. Though he only interviews a handful on screen, these scenes are really what makes the show worthwhile. Edmund Kemper (Cameron Britton) is the first interviewed and most chilling to watch. Britton is the standout performance of the entire show, bringing a slow and articulate thoughtfulness to the infamous hulking psychopath. What makes him so skin-crawling is not how quickly he changes from amiable to menacing, it’s that there is no difference between the two. In one scene, Holden brings up his sex life in order to coax out Kemper’s thoughts, to which Kemper reacts by comparing his horrendous crimes in disgusting detail. He’s incredibly self-aware and forthcoming, making him one of the more memorable TV characters in recent memory. The fact that Kemper is a real person who actually did these awful things makes him all the more uncomfortable to watch.
The dark, Fincher-esque cinematography is another way Mindhunter distinguishes itself from other shows in its genre. Erik Messerschmidt landed the job of Director of Photography through his previous work with Fincher as a gaffer on 2014’s Gone Girl. In an online interview, Messerschmidt describes his style on Mindhunter as ‘surrealist naturalism’, a phrase that couldn’t be more fitting. Though the lighting often is natural, there’s something always off about the reality in each scene. It’s dark and brooding, but never distractedly so, just to a degree that complements the show’s disturbing content. Messerschmidt imitates Fincher’s style well, de-emphasizing showy camera movements and dramatic lighting stages, focusing instead on meaningful shot compositions that allow the actors to simply act. It’s far from bland or tasteless; on the contrary, it’s a rather subliminal way the show sets itself apart.
Where Mindhunter falls short is its narrative and pacing. The first three episodes are great, taking their sweet time to set up Holden’s dark path into the world of interviewing violent killers, picking up extra help along the way in the form of Bill and Wendy. Once their project gets rolling, though, the show slows into a drudging stall. Half of the show’s time is spent with Holden and Bill traveling across the country, assisting local police departments in solving violent crimes using the profiling techniques they’re materializing through their interviews. Admittedly, some of these cases are actually engaging to see worked through. There’s a case in a small Pennsylvania town where a local’s fiancé is murdered that has a slightly unexpected twist in the outcome. The final murder the duo help solve is also memorable in the sickening way Holden breaks the suspect down in the interrogation room.
Only about half of the cases they work through are worthwhile, though. The narrative of the middle episodes seems to deflate and lose steam almost entirely. It’s not that they’re slow; the first episodes were slow too, but still maintained my total interest because what they were working towards was morbidly fascinating. No, the middle episodes are just poorly written. One middle subplot follows Holden’s involvement in a local elementary school where a principal tickles students’ feet as punishment for misbehavior. The guy is almost certainly a pedophile, and Holden, as an FBI agent with other duties, tries to intercede on behalf of concerned parents and faculty. There are so many problems with this plot. For one, it’s preposterous to assume an FBI agent would personally handle a local case like this without arresting anyone; Holden’s colleagues and supervisor explicitly articulate this precise thought numerous times. It’s also just unnecessary, dumb, and doesn’t hold much relevance to the main narrative.
The show does manage to find itself again in the final two episodes, which coincidentally are the first two directed by Fincher since Episodes 1 and 2. Holden’s behavior becomes increasingly unhinged in interviews, making it harder and harder to tell if he’s still acting so the inmates will talk or starting to think like them himself. My guess is a combination of both. Holden started as a boy scout, an idealist looking to improve the FBI and law enforcement in general. Talking to such detestable people seems to have had a negative effect on him, and his life starts to fall apart in the season’s concluding episodes. An internal investigation is launched into his behavior, and despite his own lack of concern, it seems that his research may be in jeopardy due to his unsound methods.
In the season’s final scene, Holden visits Ed Kemper for a final time, hospitalized after an attention-seeking suicide attempt. Kemper questions the nature of their relationship, remarking menacingly how he could kill Holden quite easily if he wanted to before embracing him. Holden pushes himself out of the dimly-lit nightmare, into the bright hallways of the prison hospital before collapsing against the wall in a panic attack. It’s worth pointing out that this scene is the only one in the entire show to utilize a handheld camera, complete with a shaky operator to complement Holden’s panicked fear. The scene is incredible, frightening and nerve-wracking in the same vein of the basement scene in Zodiac. Holden’s confidence made him forget the danger of dealing with these psychopathic killers, and the scene is an alarming wake up call for him next season to say the least.
All in all, Mindhunter isn’t a bad show. It has believable actors, a skilled cinematographer, and most of all an intriguing premise. The only thing lacking is the writing. I have no doubt in my mind if Fincher comes back for Season 2 and wields more creative control, Mindhunter could really become something special. As it stands now, the show is just above average, but so close to greatness. I will say that despite not considering myself a binge-watcher, I finished the show in less than a week, so that has to say something about its quality. As a Fincher fan though, I had high expectations going in, and was left somewhat wanting. Mindhunter never quite lives up to Fincher’s level of cinematic perfection, but it’s a thoroughly entertaining watch nevertheless.