‘Mindhunter’ review: Into the Darkness, Empathetically

Mindhunter poster

If someone asked you if you knew how to spell oeuvre, chances are you’d scoff or glance stealthily at your smartphone to crosscheck your o’s and e’s. But when serial killer Ed Kemper (Cameron Britton) asks this of FBI agent Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff), the only reaction you’ll emanate is a nervous chuckle. And Netflix’s triumphant Mindhunter shines resplendently with scenes that call for wintery titters and shivers running down the spine.

Speaking of oeuvres, executive producer David Fincher (the show also boasts of actor Charlize Theron on the team), who also directed four episodes of the nine for the first season, adds a first-of-its-kind entry to his already burgeoning résumé of psychological and dark thrillers. As if almost bristling at the mere thought of this unforgivable typecasting, Fincher bases Mindhunter on killers, but the premise that unfolds across the first season is not on getting the killers on the radar and then zooming into an inevitable denouement of shadowy face-offs. But more of that in a while.

Created by Joe Penhall, Mindhunters is a fictional account based on Mindhunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit written by John E. Douglas and Mark Olshaker – the book itself a path breaking bestseller in criminal profiling; of the authors, Olshaker is an Emmy-award winning filmmaker and writer; Douglas, a retired FBI agent, and the man who pioneered the concept of delving into the minds of killers to tease out the why after the who’s been established.

Jonathan Groff, Holt McCallany, Thomas Francis Murphy - Let the discovery begin
Jonathan Groff, Holt McCallany, Thomas Francis Murphy: let the discovery begin.

The pilot episode, running an hour-plus long, kicking off circa 1977, is perhaps the only one where you see Agent Ford (based on Douglas) confronting a hostage situation, he a negotiator, albeit a frustrated one; and before long, he strikes up a shaky, but seemingly sure bond with Agent Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) – Tench’s character based on agent Robert K. Ressler – who’s a senior agent in the FBI’s fledgling Behavioral Science Unit. In real life, Ressler is credited with coining the term, “serial killer” – in the show, there’s a finger-snappingly slick scene that delivers the concept, as Douglas and Tench discuss the coinage, along with Dr. Wendy Carr (Anna Torv), professor of psychology who’s consulting with them on their effort to interview killers and collate data. Carr’s character is based on real-life professor Dr. Ann Wolbert Burgess, who collaborated with Douglas and Ressler, and also got them grants to continue their studies.

Directors Fincher, Asif Kapadia, Tobias Lindholm, and Andrew Douglas craft episodes that are meticulously plotted, soaking in each scene unhurriedly, yet nothing ever plods here. The look is dark for most of the while, especially in the jail interviews that Ford and Tench conduct, or when they’re in their basement office, for that is where their boss, Unit Chief Shepard (a brisk, brusque, and sharp performance by Cotter Smith) relegates them to, as if that’d keep them down, if not out.

Holt M_MIndhunter
Actor Holt McCallany reads, reacts to this review.  

As Agent Ford slowly begins to understand that there’s something more to the eye than just random killings behind the various men he and Tench interview, his gleaning is proportionate to the gleaming his eyes can hardly control. However, his first interview with Edward Kemper is perhaps the most chilling of them all. If Ford learns something, it is that regular interviewing techniques won’t just play with the twisted minds he’s trying to understand, and he begins to apply make-believe, gentle empathy. This scene, amidst the clanging of jail cells, is a master-class in talking terror, as the agent and the killer, size each other, gently shadow-boxing with words, circling each other in the ring of information pugilistics. Every moment in this interview crackles with tension, while you sit, white-knuckled, afraid to breathe, lest the giant-sized Kemper turn to you, or harm Ford, your only connection to this world.

Jonathan Groff, Cameron Britton - that's how you cut a neck
Cameron Britton, Jonathan Groff : that’s how you cut a neck

As Holden and Tench score their first victory in solving a case, and Dr. Carr joins them, the tension and drama ratchets up as well. The team, even as they begin categorizing their research, starts paying a slow, undeniable price in their personal lives. Each one of them has an arc of anguish that plays out, wreaking hurt, the rear-view mirror of their life the reflection of a wreckage that seems hard to salvage.

Every passing interview, Holden and Tench change too – their strengthening bond suddenly frayed, as Holden discovers an almost devious delight in manipulating his interviewees with empathy and sympathy, both at first forced, but as they go deeper, the line between analyzing them to joining them in verbal jousts that speak their language, shattering the sanitized questionnaire into shreds; straining the team’s tenuous ties to the point of breakdown. And in a brilliant turn, as Holden gets manipulative and pushes the boundaries of ‘accepted procedure’ he gets better and abrasive, even.

Jonathan Groff’s is a superb act, making Holden’s slow and steady dichotomic progress palpable and believable. He lends an almost savantic touch to Holden, his unblinking stare toward Tench as he discovers newer dimensions to the killers they interview almost a calling card. Groff is also very good in a scene where he deduces where his relationship with girlfriend Hannah Gross (Debbie Mitford in a spitfire, smart, sassy act) is going, an almost clinical appraisal of the situation.

Jonathan Groff, Anna Torv, Holt McCallany - the tension lifts
Jonathan Groff, Anna Torv, Holt McCallany: the tension lifts, then rises.

As the chain-smoking Tench, Holt McCallany is brilliant, he having some of the show’s best lines that he delivers with a dry nastiness that’s mesmerizing. A perfect foil to Groff’s act, you shiver in pleasure as the two play off each other in the interviews, sometimes so swiftly, the dialogues build up to an unbearable tension. McCallany is solid when the camera peeks into his personal life as well, delving into tender depth with his wife, Nancy Tench (Stacey Roca, bewildered, angry, and oh so hurtingly good). And Anna Torv delivers a powerful, knowing, controlled-sexiness of a performance, her personal sacrifice second even to a tuna can-and-cat experiment that she conducts with icy detachment, resulting in a shuddering end.

Jason Hill’s new-age background score is hauntingly good, designed to elicit heebie-jeebies at the right moment, pianos plinking to the bassy plonks of synthesizers, adding to the moodiness of the show with a mindful punch. As is the choice of soundtrack in the show – songs used so effectively to add to the atmospherics that you forget to groove to them – Psycho Killer (Talking Heads), Fly Like an Eagle (Steve Miller Band), A Fifth of Beethoven (Walter Murphy), Baker Street (Gerry Rafferty) –  just some of the numbers from the delectable playlist.

Mindhunter, then, is a triumph in unerring eeriness and rock-solid characterization, the direction and scripting solid from the word ‘Go’. It’s moody, procedural and quite simply, vice-like powerful. There’s hardly any murder that’s staged, except in the horror lobes of your brain, and yet it’s viscerally haunting. And the scariest part? It uses empathy to seduce you to take a look into the heart of darkness, much like its protagonist. And like Holden, you want to keep going and going, the consequences be damned…into season 2.

 Mindhunter (2017) on IMDb Movie data powered by IMDb.com

Mindhunter is rated A (not recommended for folks below 18). Intense and graphic dialogues and a darkness that prevails long after every compelling episode. 

 David Fincher, Asif Kapadia, Tobias Lindholm, and Andrew Douglas
Running Time 34-60 minutes
Writers John Douglas, Mark Olshaker, Joe Penhall, Jennifer Haley, Erin Levy, Tobias Lindho, Dominic Orlando, Ruby Rae Spiegel, Carly Wray
Stars Jonathan Groff, Holt McCallany, Anna Torv
Genres Crime, Drama, Thriller

Watch the trailer of Mindhunter here: