“How do we get ahead of crazy if we don’t know how crazy thinks?” Federal Bureau of Investigation agent Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) asks his boss, a hardened bureau man who considers psychiatry as something that old-fashioned crime solving is better off without. Tench, along with his partner Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff), is trying to convince the bureau that picking the minds of the most sickening killers can provide a window into understanding similar minds in the future and thus solving or even preventing violent crimes.
Tench and Ford’s ideas, seen as hippie nonsense or plain immoral by law enforcement officials in the beginning, coalesce into a systematic study of how serial killers function. Their theories start to bear fruits. The new Netflix series Mindhunter moves away from the done-to-death story of the serial killer as an unknowable and malevolent entity only to be revealed in the climax. Instead, it gets close to the devil and shares notes with him over coffee and cigarettes.
Written by Joe Penhall, Mindhunter is adapted from John E Douglas and Mark Oshalker’s non-fiction book Mind Hunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit. Douglas, who was the basis of Thomas Harris’s Jack Crawford character in the Hannibal Lecter books, interviewed America’s worst serial killers, from Charles Manson to John Wayne Gacy, in the early 1980s along with his partner Robert Ressler.
Ressler is credited with coining the term serial killer. Together, these criminal profilers collated data, cross-examined commonalities and discovered patterns that helped police across the United States of America catch future Mansons and Gacys. Ford and Tench’s characters are based on Douglas and Ressler respectively.
Director David Fincher sets the tone for Mindhunter. He has directed the first two and the last two episodes. Fincher, forever enamoured by the sociopathic mind, be that the Bible-hugging killers (Seven), anarchist arsonists (Fight Club), withdrawn techies (The Social Network) or scorned spouses (Gone Girl), adds his trademark touches to Mindhunter. There is the preoccupation with serial killers. The muted colour palette. The slow dread.
But more than that, Mindhunter is about the men and women who wrack brains in basements, go over hundreds of boxes of evidence, listen to recordings of interviews and endure endless paperwork to make the world a better place.
Are these men motivated by a darkness they cannot explain themselves? Over the course of events, the behaviour of the agents, particularly Ford, begins to mirror the misanthropy and lack of empathy of the subjects. When one spends more time with serial killers than with friends or family, what becomes of him?
Fincher and his group of co-directors (Asif Kapadia, Tobias Lindholm and Andrew Douglas) do great justice to the first-rate writing that takes its time to build character and drama. Former Glee star Groff and Fincher regular McCallany are excellent as the young, intrepid Ford and the older, world-weary Tench. Anna Torv is a star in the making with her turn as Wendy Carr, a pragmatic psychologist who reins in Ford and Tench’s adventurous ideas with theoretical know-how.
But the real stars of the freak show are the actors playing the infamous killers. Cameron Britton stands out in every imaginable way as the six feet and nine inches tall 300-pound killer Edmund Kemper who has an IQ above 140. Watch him in a scene with a cornered Ford in an unsupervised hospital room – no sweet dreams are made of this.