I read an interview a while back where Jake Gyllenhaal discussed his frustrations with working with David Fincher. While conceding that Fincher is brilliant, he acknowledged that the director was difficult to work with because he would not only do 80 or 90 takes sometimes, but he would completely delete the first 20 or 30 takes. It takes 20 or 30 takes, Fincher suggested, to remove any signs of earnestness in an actor’s performance.
I thought about that a lot while watching Fincher and Joe Penhall’s new Netflix series, Mindhunter this weekend, and about Fincher’s obsessive attention to detail and his dispassionate approach to eliciting dispassionate performances from his actors. There’s something of an Inception-like quality to Mindhunter, which is about an FBI agent’s obsession with figuring out the obsessions of serial killers and it’s brought to the small screen by a guy who approaches filmmaking with a similar obsessive zeal. I couldn’t help but to see a little of Fincher in the show’s lead, Jonathan Groff’s Holden Ford, who immerses himself so fully into the minds of serial killers that it begins to infect the way he thinks and the way he interacts with the outside world. I’m not suggesting that Holden Ford will become a serial killer himself, or that David Fincher is in any danger of that, but I do think that Fincher has an almost sociopathic approach to filmmaking in the same way that Holden Ford has a sociopathic approach to studying sociopaths.
Jonathan Groff, by the way, is amazing in Mindhunter. He’s based on John E. Douglas (the inspiration for Jack Crawford in the Hannibal series), and the series itself is based on the origins of an actual behavioral science unit in the FBI used to study serial killers in the 1970s and 80s. Groff plays Ford, a young FBI Agent who in the beginning is a hostage negotiator, and part of that job requires that he try to get inside the mind of the hostage takers. After a hostage taker blows his own brains out, Ford is put into the classroom, and in trying to improve himself as an instructor, he gains a keen interest in psychology. That, in turn, grows into an interest in the psychology of sequential killers (the term “serial killers” was not used at the time, because it is Holden Ford and his unit that coins the term).
Early on, this pursuit is an off-the-book side gig that Ford develops with his partner Bill Tench (Holt McCallany), as they travel the country and give lectures to police departments about the rise of random killers — those who murder without an obvious motive. Ford gets it into his head that the only way to truly understand random killers is to interview them, which is a far-fetched and absurd notion to the straight-laced FBI at the time. Until this FBI unit was created, the FBI followed the facts; they did not try to get inside the minds of killers.
Despite repeatedly being warned against these activities by his boss at the FBI, the unit eventually gains some legitimacy when they bring in Anna Torv’s Dr. Wendy Carr (based on the real life Dr. Ann Wolbert Burgess), who helps the unit gain funding through grants and helps them devise a system in which to interview serial killers. By interviewing the likes of Edmund Kemper and Richard Speck, the unit begins to understand the process of profiling, and they use those techniques to help local police departments investigate homicides.
Mindhunter, however, is not Criminal Minds crossed with Zodiac. Honestly, it’s more like Zodiac crossed with Zodiac, only the unit is not in pursuit of one serial killer but the psychological tools needed to identify all serial killers. There’s a lot of interpersonal drama, as well. Ford and Tench have an uneasy relationship; Tench (based on Robert Ressler) doesn’t always like Ford’s unorthodox methods, though he does begin to appreciate the results. There’s also drama within the FBI itself; the unit is not exactly welcome in the FBI. Ford also has a girlfriend (Hannah Gross), and their relationship is strained by Ford’s work, as well as his growing arrogance — Ford evolves throughout the course of the season from an idealistic agent to something of an anti-social asshole (and Groff’s performance is certainly awards-worthy).
I loved the series; it’s incredibly well-made, well acted, fascinating, and instructive, but there’s not a lot of big plot turns or satisfying reveals. The second season of Mindhunter was picked up last week, and the first season feels less like a self-contained season and more of an ongoing story — in fact, most of the episodes open with snatches from the life of the BTK Killer. Dennis Lynn Rader, but the show itself never actually addresses Rader. It’s understood that he will be a subject in a future season. Like a lot of Fincher’s work, Mindhunter is also muted — there are tense moments here and there, and a few story arcs to give the season some structure, but it’s mostly free-flowing exploration of the unit. That is to say, the ending may feel unresolved and anti-climactic, but I think that’s by design. Season one is like a section in a book, but not the entire story. However, I loved sitting with these characters, and I am eager to see where it’s heading, especially knowing that this unit will ultimately provide the inspiration for roughly 50 percent of today’s police procedurals.