It’s interesting to consider Mindhunter in the context of David Fincher’s other films about serial killers, 1995’s fictional Se7en, in which the killer recreates tableaus based on the seven deadly sins, and 2007’s Zodiac, which follows the investigation into the murderer of the same name, who has never been definitively identified. Mindhunter feels like one of the books on codebreaking that Jake Gyllenhaal’s cartoonist Robert Graysmith borrows from the library to learn about the Zodiac’s code. David Fincher made two films about serial killer and then a two-season (it may return in the future, we can hope) television show about how the concept of the serial killer emerged within the FBI’s Behavioural Science Unit in the mid- to late 1970s. The term serial killer itself, in English (German got there in the 1930s), emerged from the process, and so Mindhunter is also about the idea that language itself has to adapt and change to comprehend and conceptualise these type of killings. The tension of the show lies in the question of what happens when the research creates a predictive model, a set of character traits, that could identify a killer before they emerge, and what the moral implications of that would be, between regarding people who have committed no crimes as dangers to society and protecting society from future crimes (and idea that reaches more salience in the second season, when one of the main character’s seven year old sons begins expressing some of the traits they have identified).
The beauty of the show is that it is, essentially, a workplace procedural. Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff, who is fantastic in this role – his name is “a joke in Australia”, but in 2023, also a reminder of what happened to Adelaide’s manufacturing industry since) is a hostage negotiator whose specialised knowledge lands him a teaching job, even though he would rather be in the field. He realises that the methods and terminology that the FBI uses can’t capture a cultural change that is happening – murders happens without rational motives, which, in a scene where he is having a beer with a colleague, they interpret as maybe being a sign of the times. He realises that there is a wealth of knowledge about these types of crimes locked up in America’s prisons, and that interviewing them could reveal important information about them. This research is based on the the actual history of John Douglas and Robert Ressler, who compiles a database based on interviews with thirty-six incarcerated criminals. In Mindhunter, Ford sets out on his own to start with and finds a wealth of introspection and articulate analysis in his first subject, Ed Kemper (stunningly played by Britton, who matches Kemper’s physicality and expression perfectly, to an unsettling degree). Kemper, in the context of the show, is a standout, because he was not caught – he gave himself up, because he feared to be captured – and because he appears to have spent a lot of time already thinking about the questions that Holden Ford asks him, although his narrative tends to self-aggrandise and seek approval to an extent. None of the other serial killers that will appear on the show ever reach his level of cooperation or articulateness, and Ford will leave the interactions deeply haunted and changed, but will also be frequently disappointed when he can’t gleam the same wealth of information from his other subjects. Kemper is also the one who will later remind him that his pool is limited, since it only captures serial killers who were caught, indicating that perhaps, the ones that evade capture (like the Zodiac killer, for example, ultimately did) are the ones he should be interested in. Even Charles Manson remains, as a subject, disappointing.
Ford’s research is soon formalised when he joins colleague Bill Tench (Holt McCallany, also a singular performance of deep, inexpressible sadness) in his road school project, where the agents present some of their new research to small police departments across the US. It gives them the freedom to visit prisons in their time there, and as reluctant those police officers are about, many approach them with their own unsolvable, terrible cases. This becomes an opportunity to utilise their findings in the field and refine their method. Later, Wendy Carr (Anna Torv), a Boston University researcher, joins them – giving up a controlling relationship with an older woman and a more liberal environment for the opportunity to continue her research into sociopaths. Carr is a fictional character, as are Tench and Ford, but Fincher uses the opportunity to write her as a researcher who has previously focused on white collar crime – essentially, on the fact that the very personality traits that create serial killers also make for great leaders of industry (she would have had a ball in the 1980s). Mindhunter is about what cooperation between different personalities looks like – Holden, eager to apply his findings, maybe overconfident in his ability, Tench always cautious, eventually burdened by a horrible thing that his adoptive son has done (all of a sudden, at networking events, everything he hears appears in a different light when others suggest that they can see evil, that they would like to incarcerate preventatively), Wendy Carr eager to bring people back into scientific methods, into structured questionnaires, but also aware of what it means to live a secret life (her relationships never survive), what it means when the scientific establishment defines something as deviant behaviour. Many of the people she works with are all to ready to equate queerness with criminality, and it reminds her how careful she has to be when she creates categories of behaviour to apply to individuals. There are interesting moments here where the question of authenticity is considered, of living a life true to oneself in a society that doesn’t allow it, and a deeper consideration about how this kind of work inevitably destroys everyone involved in it (Ford’s panic disorder and inability to remain in a relationship, Bill’s inability to support his wife after his son requires so much of her attention, Wendy’s doomed attempts at romance). Often, Fincher pays close attention to surroundings – the workplace, his protagonists’ living situation – and examines them almost like you would a crime scene, Holden’s meticulousness and Wendy’s furnished apartment revealing more about them than they’d be happy to share about themselves.
It is unfortunate that Mindhunter is on hiatus for now, perhaps indefinitely, since the show has been working towards a greater narrative, starting almost every episode with a vignette about an emerging serial killer. An average looking man drives around in his ADT security van, in preparation for something. Later, the audience will know that this man is the BTK killer Dennis Rader, who started to kill in 1974 but wasn’t apprehended until 2005. Bill Tench and Holden Ford investigate some of his early crime scenes, and it would have been interesting to see the two narratives connect further. Instead, the second season focuses on the Atlanta Child Killings, a series of murders that Holden sees an opportunity to both help a group black mothers who feel underserved by the Atlanta Police and political establishment, and to test his theories in practice. The results are deeply ambiguous – a man is eventually caught, but only tried for two of the killings, and the grieving mothers insist that Holden has only played into the hands of the city, so eager to find an easy scapegoat and to move on, the same city that had previously insisted that the disappearance and murder of black children fell within the parameters of its crime statistics and was therefore unremarkable. In this particular case, Holden’s narrow focus, his insistence on a profile that is convenient for a city plagued by white violence against its black citizens, is detrimental – it may be correct, history is inconclusive (the killings stopped after the apprehension of the killer – in that regard, closure is provided maybe by coincidence, as it is in Fincher’s Zodiac), but it does not address the greater grievances, the political context. It’s a reminder of the shortfalls of the project, and of Holden’s hubris, who believes he can now explain everything, in spite of Kemper’s warning of his limited scope. I hope Fincher will eventually return to this story, and find a way to tell the ending.
2017-2019, created by David Fincher, starring Jonathan Groff, Holt McCallany, Anna Torv, Sonny Valicenti, Stacey Roca, Hannah Gross, Joe Tuttle, Cameron Britton.
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