There’s something about a Fincher movie that’s intoxicating to watch. Is it his meticulous directing that seems to capture every detail with ease? How his perfect camera movements that seem to hijack your eyes? Or is it just his understanding of his audience? It could be any one of them or none, but his work has such an impact on both ends of the audience spectrum. Without fail, Fincher will focus his efforts into something that takes him years and delivers a product that will floor critics and general audiences. I personally find Zodiac to be his best work, and it even crept up my favorite films of all time, ranking second. It’s a film that fuses slasher-style horror and police procedural, all while exploring how obsession can affect even the strongest will. By proxy, the actual case becomes as fascinating as the film and can drive you to your own little investigation. When word came through the grapevine that Fincher would be returning to the realm of serial killers and crime drama, every other season premiering this year went on the backburner. Sorry Mr. Robot, Stranger Things, Shameless, and final season of Halt and Catch Fire: there was never any winning this fight.
In the climate that arose following the Charles Manson murders, and other perplexingly heinous crimes, the FBI who observed these monsters through the lens of their classical understanding of criminality were dumbfounded. Special Agent Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff), a greenhorn hostage negotiator, sees the flawed system and sets out to understand the psychology of these individuals in hopes of uncovering their hidden motives ,or even commonalities that might help identify perpetrators in dead-end cases. The study leads him to Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) from the Behavioral Science Unit at the Bureau, and the two travel the country teaching local law enforcement about profiling. These visits sometimes gets them involved in local cases, and later helps facilitate interviews with high-profile killers.
This show is not for the faint-hearted. The investigations may not always be explicitly graphic, but the interviews can get under the skin of even seasoned viewers. Listening to someone like Edmund Kemper eloquently recount the murder of his mother will chill you to the bone. In those moments, it doesn’t feel like peering into the mind of a madman, but assuming his position. Much like the 1983 film Angst, the unfiltered monologue reaches beyond Holden and Bill to grasp the audience’s hand for the journey. The disturbing nature of these interviews may turn some viewers away; I have no doubt about it, and I wouldn’t argue. What certainly adds to the effect is Fincher’s preference for unflinching camera work, and the dichotomy between Holden and Bill. Bill is a grizzled, hardened agent that seems to embody the classical philosophies of the Bureau, while Holden is shockingly open-minded. Learning about these people disconcertingly flips a switch in him; he becomes apathetic or perverse in response to their stories, baiting and provoking interviewees into opening up. Mindhunter is all about interactions between people and their stories, which make it more compelling than most procedurals: there isn’t a DNA test or a call for forensic evidence in sight.
The cast is well rounded, and while the majority are typecast, they deliver good performances–at worst, serviceable. It’s questionable where Groff, who plays Holden, falls on that spectrum. Whether it’s the actor or how the character is written, this character seems to broadcast some mixed messages. Constant exposure to these kinds of people certainly takes a toll on Holden throughout the season, but his transformation is spotty, and unnaturally fast. Taking a quick look at a confrontation late in the season, Holden is visited by the wife of a man whose life was destroyed following Holden’s involvement. There is clearly shock and regret in his eyes, but immediately after, he brushes it off as nothing. There may be an argument that this transition from false remorse to dismissal is simply a side effect of the job, but it’s an angle that I’m still grappling with.
There are a few other issues that boil down to creative choices that Fincher may have delegated since he’s never worked on a full-length series before. Even though Fincher personally directs most of the season, the others are clearly do their best to replicate his work; and although they were probably working closely with Fincher, things still fall through the cracks. There are some brief moments of tonal clash, mainly with scene changes and transitions between cuts. They feel unexpectedly light. It’s a tightrope walk, as evident when you compare Mindhunter to Zodiac, whose lighter moments never feel out of place. Lastly, there’s the giant bold text that covers the screen for many major city changes. Just making the text smaller so the viewer can see what’s going on in the moment would be an improvement, but the text also appears when we return to cities whose significance we’ve already established and recognize. The text is unnecessary in those moments. Nitpicky, I know, but it’s Fincher’s attention to detail that lends his work such extraordinary elegance.
The buzz surrounding Mindhunter is louder than it was for Zodiac, and while there’s a lot to compare, I don’t think it approaches the greatness of Zodiac. That being said, it is undoubtedly the movie’s spiritual cousin and shares some of its atmosphere. While you may need to take a breather after a few episodes, the show is still bingeable, and if push comes to shove, there are logical breaks that let you off the hook if you can’t watch another episode immediately (*cough* Stranger Things *cough*). It’s more proof that Fincher can really do no wrong, even working in an unfamiliar format.