David Fincher’s “Mindhunter” (2017-2019)

The past ten years or so have seen an explosion in the popularity of the true crime genre. From the runaway success of the SERIAL podcast to lurid streaming serials like Netflix’s MAKING A MURDERER, this particular milieu has captured the minds of a generation of young adults. Just recently, Netflix revealed its Ryan Murphy-led limited series on serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer to have logged three hundred million hours streamed (the streaming behemoth’s reputation for spotty metrics notwithstanding). Perhaps this is all a twisted form of escapism from a collective existential nightmare wrought by climate change, gun violence or crushing student loan debt… to name just a few of the many possible factors affecting the audiences driving this particular phenomenon. The celebrated director David Fincher has another, simpler theory: “people are perverts”. First espoused in an on-camera promotional interview some years ago, the idea could be easily applied to the whole of a filmography marked by themes of obsession, control, serial murders and a technical aesthetic dancing on the razor’s edge between meticulousness and fetish. It’s obvious that the filmmaker behind iconic murder thrillers like SE7EN (1995) and ZODIAC (2007) would come to be involved in a project like MINDHUNTER, but true to form, Fincher defies and subverts our expectations at every turn with a nuanced deconstruction of behavior so aberrant it ceases to be human altogether.

A fictionalized retelling of the FBI’s early days in criminal profiling, MINDHUNTER is a compelling forum for Fincher to expand on ZODIAC’s search for the human drama amidst procedural minutiae, endless paperwork and tireless shoe leather. The project initially came to him by way of actress and executive producer Charlize Theron, who had optioned the eponymous 1995 book written by former FBI agent John E. Douglas and his co-writer Mark Olshaker (3). The pair had set it up at HBO back in 2009, but they’d subsequently bring it to Netflix following Fincher’s signing of a four-year exclusivity deal in the wake of his successful involvement with the political thriller series HOUSE OF CARDS (2). The disruptive streamer was in the midst of a staggeringly expensive push for Hollywood legitimacy, effectively poaching the talents of major filmmakers away from legacy studios by bankrolling their passion projects and signing them to splashy development deals. Of all these directors, Fincher’s was arguably the talent most suited to the opportunities of the streaming age. Already regarded as a pioneer of the digital revolution thanks to his adoption of high-definition cameras for ZODIAC, Fincher’s Netflix deal would be the logical endgame, adding delivery and exhibition to his all-digital pipeline. For Fincher, the deal was personally appealing in that it laid the groundwork to satisfy his desires to increase the pace of his output; beyond the natural desire to try new things, he was frustrated by the observation that forty years of work had produced “only” eleven features (2). So it was that MINDHUNTER, Fincher’s second foray into serialized storytelling for Netflix, would become a proving ground for the streaming realm’s unique promise to satisfy his ceaseless ambition— and to quench his insatiable thirst for creative control. 

Over the course of two seasons and nineteen episodes, MINDHUNTER details the exploits of a pair of enterprising FBI agents as they set up the bureau’s first criminal psychology division and apply their findings to active investigations. Season 1, set during the three year span between 1977 and 1980, finds agents Holden Ford and Bill Tench becoming unlikely allies as they push for the inclusion of behavioral psychology as a crime fighting and prevention tool in the face of severe skepticism and outright dismissal. Season 2 brings us into 1981, revolving around the department’s study of mental illness to thwart an active serial killer in Atlanta amassing a ghastly body count of nearly thirty souls— most of them children. Fincher’s directorial efforts are concentrated in episodes 1, 2, 9, and 10 of Season 1 and the first three episodes of Season 2, but his exacting vision is palpable throughout the show’s entirety. This begins with a remarkable cast dialed in to Fincher’s specific frequency, headlined by Jonathan Groff and Holt McCallany as a pair of intrepid FBI agents laying psychological siege to the defenses of serial killers and governmental bureaucrats alike. Highly regarded as a major musical talent on the small screen and the stage, Groff enjoys the opportunity to break out of the proverbial typecasting box as a straightlaced Boy Scout-type gradually corrupted by deviant ideas and, in season 2, increasingly incapacitated by panic attacks brought on by a close encounter with one of his interview subjects. As writer Adam Nayman would observe in his 2021 monograph on Fincher, “Mind Games”, shades of Jesse Eisenberg’s Mark Zuckerberg can be felt throughout Ford’s persona (3)— a meticulous, clinical coldness suggesting a lizard brain trying to make sense of the human meat suit encasing it. His fascination with the criminal mind is almost monastic in its single-mindedness, taking its toll on his personal and professional relationships while suggesting that he isn’t so different from the sociopaths and psychopaths he’s working to understand. A Fincher regular found throughout his filmography in bit roles like ALIEN 3 and FIGHT CLUB, McCallany finally steps into the limelight with a role that makes compelling use of his brusque charms. His character of agent Bill Tench is the gruff signifier of an old guard content to sweep mental illness under the rug instead of looking it in the eye; a nuclear family man cast in the Eisenhowerian mold who comes to find the starched suit might not fit as well as he thought it did. Tench’s arms-length warmth positions him as an excellent foil to Ford’s chilly bookishness, resulting in the classic kind of back-and-forth, tit-for-tat chemistry that defines the great onscreen partnerships.

Groff and McCallany are supported by a stacked ensemble of character actors, many of whom are tasked with the intimidating challenge of inhabiting some of the most notorious and disturbing serial killers known to man. The show structures itself around these conversations with incarcerated killers, showcasing a rogue’s gallery that includes the likes of Richard Speck and David Berkowitz (aka Son of Sam), the former played by Jack Erdie as a folksy foul-mouth psycho with a pet bird and the latter by Oliver Cooper as a swollen-faced narcissist whose casual inhumanity is perhaps just as disturbing as his sensationalistic claim of hearing voices that tell him to kill. While the specter of Charles Manson hangs over the proceedings as a kind of ultimate White Whale, Fincher’s episodes in particular find the figures of Edmund Kemper and the mysterious BTK killer looming even larger. In Kemper’s case, quite literally: skyscraper-sized actor Cameron Britton towers over Groff and even McCallany, clanging handcuffs hanging around his waist like the ghost of Jacob Marley. A sick and depraved soul residing inside the body of a gentle giant, Britton’s Kemper possesses a Fincherian meticulousness and analytical presence of mind, projecting a twisted friendliness that could just as soon envelope you in a bear hug or a stranglehold. Sonny Valicenti, technically credited as “ADT Serviceman”, lurks throughout the opening vignettes of each episode on his way to becoming the BTK killer. First presented in rather pedestrian fashion making his rounds through town, each of these prologues bring us closer and closer to the inner life of a serial murderer. Clearly positioned as the arch villain that the show is building towards in a hypothetical Season 3, BTK’s mild-manner and quiet persona is systematically stripped away to reveal the deranged murderer underneath, while showing the audience how such depravity and evil is easily hidden away right under our noses.

Though MINDHUNTER is dominated by the preoccupations of its male leads and their interview subjects, the fairer sex throws around significant dramatic weight. With Fincher’s episodes in particular, characters like Dr. Wendy Carr, Debbie Mitford and Nancy Tench provide some welcome perspective against the masculine posturing that permeates the show. Commonly mistaken for fellow actress Carrie Coon (to the extent that Coon herself had to issue a statement denying her presence in the series), Anna Torv slips quite easily into the rigid contours of Fincher’s icy aesthetic. Her Dr. Wendy Carr is a career psychoanalyst who serves as something of an avatar for the Bureau’s authority within Ford and Tench’s fledgling department. Cold, clinical, and dispassionate, she’s able to ground her colleagues’ flights of fancy in reality just as much as her own rich interior life (fleshed out in further detail throughout Season 2 via her same-sex flirtations with the bartender of a local watering hole for Quantico cadets). Though Ford and Tench’s operation is initially met with skepticism and outright hostility by the establishment, their ultimate validation comes about because of Carr’s legitimizing presence. Stacy Roca’s Nancy Tench suggests herself as something of a counterbalance to Carr’s singular focus on career, delivering an affecting performance within the narrow constraints of domesticity. The series doesn’t really present the character of Bill’s wife as anything more than that, but does see fit to give her the grace note of being a real estate agent who becomes ensnared in some of Season 2’s plot machinations. Like Carr, she too becomes a grounding force, helping the audience to gauge just how untethered Ford and Tench become over the course of the series. Hannah Gross’s Debbie Mitford is a third point of feminine access into the material, effectively triangulating this exterior commentary on the proceedings. Woven into the plot by virtue of being Ford’s girlfriend in Season 1, Milford’s Debbie aggressively resists easy labels. A sociology major at the nearby college, Debbie is a confrontational student of a counterculture caught in the dying throes of its 1960’s heyday. Probing, acerbic and proudly independent, Debbie positions herself as a liberating force for the uptight, straightlaced Ford, introducing him to certain carnal and herbal pleasures alike. When combined with the peculiar nature of his work, however, their mutual liberation takes on a corrosive quality, ultimately ending in lurching heartbreak as Ford rededicates himself anew to a road that only he is willing to walk.

More so than his previous foray into television with HOUSE OF CARDS, MINDHUNTER bears Fincher’s all-encompassing aesthetic stamp. With the exception of an episode shot by Christopher Probst, Fincher collaborates with cinematographer (and Emerson alum) Erik Messerschmidt to construct the show’s meticulous, almost-fetishistic style. Fincher’s adoption of digital photography has resulted in an unofficial alliance with the Red brand of camera systems, with MINDHUNTER harnessing the strengths of Red’s Dragon and Helium sensors— themselves housed in a custom build created exclusively for Fincher himself and dubbed, somewhat ironically, the Xenomorph. Captured in 6K resolution for Season 1 and 8K for Season 2 for better compositional control within Netflix’s 4K delivery requirements, MINDHUNTER effortlessly channels the quintessential Fincher look. One of the most immediately recognizable aesthetics in the industry, Fincher’s signature style values sharpness, contrast, and precision while conjuring a peculiar impression of omniscience. His camera fluidly glides, pushes and pulls us along what feels like an inevitable path. Indeed, Fincher’s protagonists often come across as rats in a maze rather than self-actualized agents of plot progression— a sensation his critics often leverage against him as an inherent coldness to the human condition, but that could also be read as a highly effective storytelling device that amplifies the effectiveness of his characters’ actions when the deck is otherwise stacked so highly against them. The repeated use of low angle frames that show us the ceiling reinforces this effect, all the better to convey power dynamics between characters while subtly highlighting the constricting boundaries of Fincher’s meticulously-constructed maze.

MINDHUNTER utilizes a mix of Zeiss Ultra Prime, Leitz and Fujinon lenses to resolve its compositions, all of which make compelling use of a 2.20:1 aspect ratio— a uniquely sized frame that sits somewhere between CinemaScope and the 2:1 frame first proposed as “Univisium” by cinematographer Vitorio Storaro and popularized on streaming platforms over the last several years. The color palette deals in earth and steel tones, avoiding what Fincher has described as the “distracting’ presence of red almost entirely in order to maintain a calibrated collection of blues, yellows, greens, and browns. Warm practicals lend pops of light throughout, even within the buzzing banality of Quantico’s fluorescent overheads. Deep wells of shadow lend significant weight and mystery to the image; no easy feat, considering the technology’s notorious difficulty in exposing true blacks. Production Designer Steve Arnold complements this palette in his authentic recreation of the period, which evokes ZODIAC’s unsentimental, workaday qualities in a bid to replicate that film’s emphasis on paperwork and pavement-pounding over lurid genre flourishes. Fincher’s regular feature editor, Kirk Baxter, returns to cut all seven of his episodes; the first episode in particular establishes the plodding, methodical tone. What seems at first to be an unhurried, albeit exacting, pace eventually reveals itself as a four-dimensional boa constrictor… gradually coiling itself around the characters, tightening like a vise. 

Composer Jason Hill’s score achieves a similar effect, using ominous synths and subdued piano chords to impress an atmospheric, Fincherian vibe on the image that resists easy labels like “Reznor-lite”. The show’s many needledrops maintain the fine line between immersive period recreation and nostalgia avoidance, used primarily as a way of marking the passing of time itself… each song another grain of sand tumbling down the pinch point of the hourglass, reinforcing the urgency with which Ford and Tench must understand the murderous mind so as to prevent someone else’s time from running out. Fincher uses Walter Murphy and The Big Apple Band’s disco rendition of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony as a starting point on this musical journey, progressing along with the transitional rock of Talking Heads and into the 1980’s with New Wave artists. More pointedly, Fincher scores a propulsive road trip montage to Steve Miller Band’s “Fly Like An Eagle”; lyrics like “fly right into the future” reinforcing the chronological conceits of his needledrops while signaling the progressiveness of their cause and their tireless efforts in the face of significant resistance.

With its laserlike focus on the themes of obsession, control, and serial murder, MINDHUNTER effortlessly embodies the highest-profile aspects of Fincher’s artistic sensibilities. The subject matter allows Fincher to revisit ideas from opposite ends of his career— from the more recent end, sequences featuring low dialogue in loud environments recalls a similar technique introduced in THE SOCIAL NETWORK that compels the audience to lean in to discern the conversation like they would if they were really there. The stylization of MINDHUNTER’s opening credits, meanwhile, is highly reminiscent of the opening to SE7EN. Grisly flashes of dead, decomposing bodies sear the subconscious while the camera lingers in close-up on a recording medium— in SE7EN’s case, John Doe’s mangled notebooks, and in MINDHUNTER, the knobs, levers, gauges, and rolling tape of an audio recorder. Fincher’s near-fetishization of this technological instrument parallels the story’s emphasis on obsession; for the character of Ford in particular, his need to examine motives of murder becomes an all-consuming, anthropological foray into the labyrinths of perversion and the forensics of insanity. What this all says about the human condition ultimately becomes the central question at the heart of the series.

While Fincher has understandably cultivated a reputation as a perfectionist (the less-charitable might say “control freak”), MINDHUNTER finds the director’s thematic interest in control spill out from beyond the confines of the frame and into the real world. The superlative degree to which he holds up the quality of his work equally applies to the contributions of his collaborators. The serialized, episodic nature of television, with its prioritization of writers and producers over the director, was understandably bound to generate some conflict where Fincher’s artistic priorities are concerned. Due in no small part to his extensive reporting background in criminal psychology (3), the British playwright Joe Penhall had been brought on to the project as an executive producer and the de facto showrunner during the initial days of development at HBO. The project’s relocation to Netflix provided Fincher with the opportunity to seize more authorship for himself. With Penhall still back in London, Fincher could assume command of the writer’s room and bring on a group of distinguished screenwriters consisting of Carly Wray, Jennifer Haley, and Erin Levy, among others (3). By Season 2, it was actively assumed that Penhall was all but gone; his influence diminished to a mere vanity credit. Fincher had ensconced himself as the central creative force, overseeing every aspect of production from the show’s Pittsburgh base while elevating his Assistant Director Courtenay Miles to a show-running Executive Producer position (3). Such moves would insulate and insure his creative authority— to the extent that he would even sit in on the editing sessions for episodes he didn’t direct (3), so as to better shape the entirety of the show to his exacting specifications.

Though Fincher’s methods could be described as excessive, there’s no denying they’re effective. His passion would be met in kind by affectionate critical reviews and a fervent cult fan base— “cult” being the key word. Indeed, MINDHUNTER’s dedicated audience would never quite grow in proportion to the sheer expense incurred by its production and the energy expended by Fincher himself. The news that an expected third season was put on an indefinite hold and that the cast were released from their contracts was a sobering surprise for fans suddenly forced to contend with the denial of resolution. The final episode would end at a crucial juncture for Ford and Tench, while BTK still lurked in the shadows, successfully eluding the justice that would ultimately find his real-life counterpart. In a sense, this was a perfectly Fincherian conclusion; the audience’s comfort has never been his prerogative, and to leave them hanging under the unhurried shadow of danger is perfectly synchronous with his intended tone. When it comes to navigating the mental mazes of the sick and twisted, there are no easy answers and no tidy takeaways except that true evil is fundamentally unknowable. MINDHUNTER makes it clear that we can contain it, but we can never fully understand it… at least not without corrupting ourselves in the process. Time will tell if Fincher ever works up the initiative to finish the story of Holden Ford and Bill Tench, but at least he can walk away with the assurance that his artistic intentions have been satisfied. MINDHUNTER stands shoulder to shoulder with SE7EN and ZODIAC, solidifying Fincher’s artistic reputation as an unflinching mirror reflecting our darkest impulses.

MINDHUNTER is currently available on Netflix.

Credits:

Written by: Joe Penhall, Cary Wray, Jennifer Daley, Courtenay Miles, Joshua Donen, Philip Howze

Executive Producers: Joe Penhall, Courtenay Miles, Joshua Donen, David Fincher, Cean Chaffin

Produced by:

Director of Photography: Erik Messerschmidt, Colin Probst

Production Designer: Steve Arnold

Edited by: Kirk Baxter

Music by: Jason Hill

References:

  1. IMDB Trivia Page

2. https://www.indiewire.com/2020/11/david-fincher-netflix-deal-1234598260/

3. Nayman, Adam. “David Fincher: Mind Games”. Chapter 1.3: “Mindhunter”- pg 720-85. Abrams Books. 2021.

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