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How David Fincher’s “Mindhunter” built the serial killer thriller brick by brick

Mindhunter

Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema, and the filmmaker’s own biography. With his latest, Mank, now on Netflix, we’re spending December rifling through the cold, exacting details of David Fincher and the ways his music-video-inspired aesthetics changed American filmmaking. Read the rest of our coverage here.

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If anybody could find something new to add to pop culture’s fixation with serial killers and true crime, it would likely be David Fincher. Se7en announced him as a major director while Zodiac revealed him as a master. The Fincher style – dark lighting and sickly colors, obsessive attention to detail, unblinking looks at violence – has served as a template not just for other movies, but also for TV shows of both the prestigious and potboiler variety and for the ever-increasing number of investigative podcasts and Netflix documentaries. In 2017, Fincher returned to the serial killer subgenre by taking his project Mindhunter to the streaming service.

What more was there to say about serial killers? Fincher found his answer by returning to the beginning. Mindhunter is adapted from a book of the same name by John E. Douglas and Mark Olshaker, first published in 1995 (the year Se7en was released), telling the story of how Douglas, a veteran agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, created the FBI’s first Criminal Profiling Program in the 1970s.

The conventions of serial killer stories – the compulsive killer who can only be stopped by an equally compulsive investigator, the crime scenes that quietly reveal the murderer’s psychology, even the term “serial killer” itself – can in many ways be traced back to Douglas, an author of many books and an inspiration for Thomas Harris’s original Hannibal Lecter novel Red Dragon. By cutting back through decades of cliché and expectation, Mindhunter returns to a time when these ideas were new, playing like an origin not just for criminal profiling but for the serial killer genre as a whole.

Mindhunter
Mindhunter (Netflix)

Once conceived as a film, Mindhunter would now be not just a series but one that took advantage of the episodic format, showing how, step-by-step, the Criminal Profiling Program came into being while taking individual episodes as an opportunity to explore fascinating one-off characters. 

Our hero is an analogue for Douglas: FBI Agent Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff), a young G-man who finds himself in 1977 feeling lost and unsatisfied. The Bureau is only just coming out of the Hoover era; his superiors are skeptical of psychology or any attempt at “understanding” murderers. It’s not until he meets Ed Kemper (Cameron Britton), the imprisoned, articulate 6 foot 8 “Co-Ed Killer,” that Holden begins to realize that there is something to be gained from listening to these people, to hearing them explain how they think and operate. 

The two seasons of Mindhunter chronicle Holden and his partner Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) traveling the country, interviewing incarcerated murderers. Many “big names” are there – Richard Speck, Son of Sam, Manson – but also obscure figures the audience has likely never heard of, most notably the disarmingly candid Kemper, the show’s breakout character, who fascinates in his decidedly unromantic and self-reflexive understanding of his crimes.

Essentially, the dramatic conceit of Mindhunter is that through this series of interviews, the audience watches as the modern serial killer thriller is built bit-by-bit. The result is more compelling than that summary might suggest – the killers themselves are often less interesting than they think they are, but the reactions from Ford and Tench are key parts of the larger narrative. Every episode of Mindhunter ends with the FBI team (which expands to include an academic psychologist played by Anna Torv) having learned something previously unknown about the homicidal mind, yet still left with questions, often more questions than they had before. In the first episode, Ford gloomily admits that when it comes to comprehending psychopaths, law enforcement is mostly “in the dark.” 

For a series inspired by the memoirs of a profiler, it nevertheless makes the surprising choice to challenge the very foundations of psychological profiling. 

By the season 1 finale, after ten episodes of digging the darkest depths of the human psyche, Ford suffers a panic attack when he realizes that he has gotten far closer to a killer like Ed Kemper than anyone should get. As Ford lies, hyperventilating, on a hospital floor, Fincher (who directed this episode, as well as seven others) accompanies the scene to a Led Zeppelin deep cut – “In the Light.” Ford has traveled from darkness to the light, and this newfound knowledge of the profound evils of the world has left him paranoid and fearful, perhaps forever.

Season 2 continues this origin story as it takes Ford and the FBI to Atlanta, where dozens of black children are being abducted from the street and then murdered. In the back half of the season, Mindhunter takes on a familiar structure: the serialized investigation story. But what Mindhunter does with the story is notable – for a series inspired by the memoirs of a profiler, it nevertheless makes the surprising choice to challenge the very foundations of psychological profiling. 

At every turn of Ford’s investigation, his methods are questioned, often with solid objections: Ford’s psychological models lead him to believe that the killer is almost certainly black, a conclusion that strikes much of Atlanta’s Black community as typically racist police prejudice masquerading as science. When a suspect is caught in the season 2 finale – and possibly the series finale, given the fact that Fincher and Netflix placed the show on an indefinite hiatus – the emotional impact is muted, even disappointing. More than a few notes of ambiguity hang in the air, questions are unanswered, and concerns are brushed over. 

The series returns us to the birthplace of the modern serial killer story, brought in the father of Hannibal’s Will Graham and True Detective’s Rust Cohle, but the viewer doesn’t get the secure feeling of being in the hands of an authority figure. Instead, the conclusion leaves the audience questioning what they do and do not know about murder, about psychology, about law and order – Fincher has brought us into the light, but it provides us with no warmth and little illumination. In this way, Mindhunter proves to be not just one more true crime story on the growing pile, but a smart and necessary addition to the canon.

Mindhunter Trailer:

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