FBI agent Holden Ford sits tensely at a table across from the looming Edmund Kemper—nearly seven feet tall and over 250 pounds.
“It’s not easy. Butchering people is hard work, physically and mentally,” laments Kemper, the infamous Co-Ed Killer. “I don’t think people realize. You need to vent.”
There’s something darkly funny about a serial killer complaining about serial killing, which Kemper refers to as his “vocation.” Netflix’s new original series Mindhunter could have easily presented its narrative as unrelentingly bleak, pitch black with nary a shade of grey or hint of levity. Given executive producer David Fincher’s involvement in the series (he also directed the first two and final two episodes of the season), I had some degree of apprehension that Mindhunter would emulate Fincher’s 1995 film Seven, a psychological thriller that, while tense and exciting, spends far too much time and effort trying to make its audience as miserable and depressed as possible.
Mindhunter has some truly disturbing moments and images, as any series centered around serial killers would, but its methodical pacing and emphasis on dialogue over frequent shock imagery make it far more akin to Fincher’s Zodiac than Seven. Like Zodiac, it’s about serial killers, not just serial killings; it doesn’t fetishize violence, nor does it play with violent gimmickry like the Seven Deadly Sins tableaus of Seven. In a television and film landscape dominated by shows and movies about violent killers, Mindhunter stands out as one of the best precisely because it reveals insights and generates intrigue into these killers beyond just their method(s) of killing.
Set in 1977, a time when behavioral sciences were scantly utilized by law enforcement agencies, Mindhunter serves as a sort of film à clef of the true crime book of the same name by criminal profiler John E. Douglas and novelist Mark Olshaker. FBI agents Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff, representing Douglas) and Bill Tench (Holt McCallany, representing profiler Robert Ressler) embark on a cross-country research project in which they interview imprisoned serial killers as a means of understanding their thought processes. Mindhunter puts Ford and Tench in rooms with killers like Dennis Rader (the BTK Killer), Jerry Brudos, and Richard Speck, individuals who were relevant subjects in the field but didn’t quite achieve the same pop culture significance of Charles Manson or David Berkowitz (the Son of Sam). Mindhunter is not interested in pop culture psychology, or serial killers as boogeymen, and by directing its attention towards the “deep cuts” of serial killer mythology, it establishes both a competence and investment in its subject matter above most other shows of a similar ilk.
The most interesting of these research interviews is with the aforementioned Edmund Kemper, brought to chilling life by the relatively unknown Cameron Britton. It’s a remarkable performance that avoids the pitfalls of convention; from Kemper’s unusual gait to his polite demeanor, Britton sidesteps every traditional serial killer cliché in pursuit of something terrifying in its subtlety and realism. Jonathan Groff (of Glee and Hamilton fame) more than holds his own in the lead role with his embodiment of the gradual wear-and-tear on the psyche one might expect after interviewing some of the most depraved people on the planet. His academic enthusiasm eventually gives way to an unhealthy, stubborn drive to quite literally write the book on behavioral criminology, despite the mental toll. Holt McCallany takes a tightly-wound Tench and chips away at his masculine exoskeleton till it becomes clear that, gritty and seasoned as Tench is, even he cannot remain unscathed by these imprisoned killers.
The greatest strength of Mindhunter, relative to other shows about serial killers, is that it highlights the “mind” over the “hunter.” It doesn’t sanitize its violence, but it’s also smart enough to not exploit it either. It has the austere visual tones that characterize much of Fincher’s work, but it’s not without warmth or humanity. And though the interviewees are all menacing in their own ways, Mindhunter rejects broad characterizations. Its discontent with providing easy answers for everything is what makes it so cerebrally striking. From Seven to Zodiac to Mindhunter—Fincher’s informal trilogy on serial killers—there grows an understanding of the criminal mind. It’s still nuanced enough, however, to know the limits of its central discipline and place its often-bullheaded protagonist up against them. Mindhunter weaves plenty of thrills into its heady narrative, and none of them are cheap.