For David Fincher, serial killer sagas are vehicles for both dark thrills and even darker existential questions about our inability to understand ourselves, each other, or the world in which we exist. Beneath its deadly-sins exterior, 1995’s Seven was about the dangers of thinking one can conquer evil by classifying it in a simplistic box (pun intended). And via its deep-dive into the Zodiac’s San Francisco reign of terror, 2007’s Zodiac expressed the terrifying notion that, perhaps, the whole truth—about anyone, or anything—is ultimately unknowable.
Now, Mindhunter, Fincher and creator/writer Joe Penhall’s Netflix series about the dawn of the FBI’s serial killer corps (adapted from Mark Olshaker and John E. Douglas’ non-fiction tome Mind Hunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit), caps an unofficial trilogy on the subject. And though it maintains its predecessors’ unnerving bleakness, their based-on-real-events procedural takes a moderately more hopeful outlook on the possibility of comprehending that which appears to be chaotic—a process achieved through a combination of analysis, research, curiosity and empathy.
Given that Mindhunter is set in 1979, such an attitude toward our worst homicidal offenders—here referred to as “sequence killers,” and defined as those who’ve committed three or more likeminded murders—is initially scoffed at by law enforcement’s old guard. Evil is evil, or so the prevailing wisdom goes. Still, inspired by the emergence of a new breed of maniac (Charles Manson, David “Son of Sam” Berkowitz) whose slaughtering-innocents motivations aren’t easily apparent, hostage negotiator Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) begins considering if there’s a better way to best catch these fiends. He’s further encouraged by his romantic relationship with PhD sociology candidate Debbie (Hannah Gross), whom he meets in a bar and immediately falls for, their date-night viewing of Dog Day Afternoon only amplifying his hunch that the key to fighting crime lies in figuring out what, inside, makes criminals tick, since, as his soon-to-be partner later verbalizes, “How do we get ahead of crazy if we don’t know how crazy thinks?”
After taking a few college courses, Holden is approached by FBI behavioral science agent Bill Tench (Holt McCallany), who’s impressed with Holden’s nervy desire to bring psychoanalysis into the catching-bad-guys equation. Bill persuades Holden to work as his partner on his cross-country “road shows,” in which Bill lectures local law enforcement about current bureau tactics and theories. At least at first, Holden’s radical ideas (and florid language) prove jarring to the detectives and beat cops with whom they meet. However, before long, they’re being approached, at each stop, with horrific cases for which there are few easy answers. Moreover, amidst working these unsolved crimes, Holden starts visiting with real-life serial killers, beginning with Ed Kemper (Cameron Britton), aka “The Co-Ed Killer”—a jovial giant with a taste for decapitation and necrophilia—all in order to glean first-person insights into the types of people he and Bill are hunting.
Thus, Mindhunter establishes its initial plot template, with the duo venturing from town to town working baffling homicides and speaking with psychotics while furthering their overarching research project—an endeavor in which they’re soon joined by university psychologist Wendy Carr (Anna Torv), who’s convinced a systematic approach to gathering and evaluating data is a brilliant means of deciphering the serial killer code. As with so many Netflix offerings, Mindhunter takes its time getting to this basic narrative point; it’s not until the end of episode six that these characters become an official with-the-full-support-of-the-FBI threesome. Nonetheless, even in its early going, the series commingles copious conversations about human behavior (be it about mommy issue-plagued murderers or themselves) with actual sleuthing, striking a menacing balance between academic inquiry and whodunit mystery.
At heart, Mindhunter concerns a quest to establish successful communication—a thematic foundation established during an opening hostage standoff in which a gunman who believes he’s invisible keeps asking Holden, “Can you see me?” Be it Holden and Debbie, Holden and Mitch, Holden and Mitch with their superior Shepard (Cotter Smith), or Holden, Mitch and Wendy with suspects and convicts, the series, at every turn, is rooted in its characters’ desire to create dialogue with those they don’t understand (and/or who don’t understand them). It’s Zodiac by way of Silence of the Lambs by way of Manhunter—a descent by the sane into the realm of the insane. Its focus is at once dispersed between various points of interest (including a fiend spied, initially, only in ho-hum snapshots that begin each episode) and laser-focused on its protagonists’ eagerness to grasp that which is out of reach—including about their own thoughts, emotions and lives, as each exchange finds them exploring who they are and why they behave as they do.
As the nerdy, determined Holden, Groff starts off as a blank presence and then gradually grows into his lead role. He’s aided by the considerably more assured Torv (all cool, calculating resolve) and the superb McCallany, whose Bill—a gruff, skeptical man struggling with a disaffected wife and an adopted son who (communication breakdown alert!) won’t speak—lends the material both its world-weariness and its canny sense of humor. That sly comedy also comes via the show’s style, with giant blaring title cards (indicating each scene’s locale) and pitch-perfect music cues further alleviating the oppressive gloom. As when, at the end of episode three, Holden, Bill and Wendy ruminate on how a president (specifically, Nixon; pointedly, Trump) could be a sociopath, Mindhunter infuses its despair with mordant wit.
From recurring, symmetrically composed Grand Theft Auto-esque shots from behind driving cars, to gliding pans and tracking shots in both interior and outside spaces, Fincher (director of the first and final two episodes) and his fellow helmers (including Amy’s Asif Kapadia and A Kidnapping’s Tobias Lindholm) craft a lithe, ominous aesthetic that—like their heroes—is meticulously composed and constantly probing. Throughout, Fincher’s fingerprints remain all over Mindhunter, including bar scenes that recall the Jesse Eisenberg-Rooney Mara opener in The Social Network, and interrogation sequences that boast the creepy serenity of John Carroll Lynch’s Zodiac sit-down. The result is a worthy serialized companion piece to the auteur’s prior efforts in the genre: poised, pulsating with dread, and permeated with cautious optimism that, perhaps, scrupulous rationality might help us triumph over modern-day irrationality.