• [The Daily] David Fincher’s Mindhunter

    By David Hudson


    With all ten episodes of the first season of Mindhunter, created by playwright and screenwriter Joe Penhall (The Road) and based on John E. Douglas and Mark Olshaker’s book Mind Hunter: Inside the FBI's Elite Serial Crime Unit, now available on Netflix, the first round of reviews is in. The first two episodes, directed by David Fincher, who’s also, along with Charlize Theron, Josh Donen, and Ceán Chaffin, an executive producer, were presented at the New York and London film festivals. Fincher’s also directed the final two episodes; the other directors, taking on two episodes each, are Asif Kapadia (Senna, Amy), Tobias Lindholm (A Hijacking, A War), and Andrew Douglas (the 2005 version of The Amityville Horror).

    “‘Peak TV,’ or at least the limited-run series, has increasingly accommodated one director who wants to do it all,” notes Filmmaker’s Vadim Rizov, adding that “this year has seen airings of Paolo Sorrentino’s The Young Pope, Jean-Marc Vallée’s Big Little Lies, and the indelible 18-hour run of Twin Peaks: The Return. (The recent whole-series sole-director examples of Louie and The Knick also come to mind.) It’s a drag that Fincher hasn’t chosen to direct all ten episodes himself; the first two do in fact benefit slightly from being viewed in a theater . . . , magnifying his usually typically acute and precise framing and compositions. But this is definitely TV: I was willing to take David Lynch at his word that TP:TR is an 18-hour movie . . . , but would not remotely attempt to make that case here.”

    “The drama begins in 1977, the year David Berkowitz was arrested for the Son of Sam murders,” writes James Poniewozik in the New York Times. “Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff), a hostage negotiator for the F.B.I., is growing troubled by a trend that he sees in the field: criminals whose actions are irrational, who therefore can’t be entreated with reason. When one negotiation goes awry, Ford’s supervisor reassures him that he did everything by the book. So Ford goes looking for another book. He takes an interest in sociology on crime as a response to dysfunction in the larger community. The post-Watergate, post-Vietnam malaise, goes the theory, yields more inexplicable crimes. As Ford puts it: ‘The world barely makes any sense, so the crime doesn’t either.’”

    “The overarching tone here is very much in line with Fincher’s own Zodiac (2007), which treated the 1960s/70s-era case of the California-based Zodiac killer as a soul-crushing puzzle without a satisfying solution,” writes Keith Uhlich for the Hollywood Reporter. “Its real mystery was how long the film’s succession of determined men laboring in fluorescent-lit rooms could keep after their elusive quarry without going mad themselves. . . . Mindhunter reveals itself as a suspense series hinging on after-the-fact investigations into the heads and hearts of known murderers. Not whodunit so much as whydidyou?”

    Mindhunter is engaged with the process of law enforcement, but a procedural it isn’t,” writes Time’s Daniel D’Addario. “Instead, it examines how crime is fought to ask what it is we really want cops to do for us. This is no bleeding-heart show—it’s on the side of law enforcement and incarceration. But Mindhunter’s underlying belief, that the enemy ought to be respected and known, feels almost radical.”

    “Like Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal, it’s a contemplative spin on the Criminal Minds model, a cerebral procedural of visually rich pulp,” writes Erik Adams at the A.V. Club. “If it can do a better job of maintaining those Fincher flourishes than House of Cards did—there, he only directed two episodes; he bookended the first season here—Mindhunter might turn out to be the next great Netflix drama.”

    The Silence of the Lambs was an incredible recruiting tool for the FBI,” notes Fincher in a conversation with Esquire’s Adam Grant. “Investigators are criminal masterminds, in a certain way, but very sad. When you engage with this kind of inhumanity, it comes at a cost. We gift them with these superpowers, but really they are just very thoughtful hunters. They have to imagine every permutation. ‘What if the killer does this? What if the victim does this?’ They have to work this stuff out in advance. It’s not Anthony Hopkins; it’s not a gourmet chef, sommelier, and chess master. These killers are abused, confused, and evil people. This show is much more about following the trail of inhumanity.”

    “Oh, I love interrogations!” exclaims Fincher in a talk with Rolling Stone’s David Fear. “I love scenes where someone is resisting the temptation to reveal things. An eight-page scene with four walls of containment fences and a stainless-steel picnic table? I'm there. Filmmakers go, ‘Ah shit, this is going to be so boring. I need to shoot some flashbacks.’ But I always go back to Jaws. It’s a lot more interesting in my mind to listen to Robert Shaw tell the story of the USS Indianapolis than to just cut to 1,100 men being eaten by a thousand sharks.”

    “There’s no time for character in movies,” Fincher tells Danny Leigh in the Financial Times. “Look at All the President’s Men—everything is character. Now, movies are about saving the world from destruction. There aren’t a lot of scenes in movies, even the ones I get to make, where anyone gets to muse about the why. . . . The cinema isn’t dead. It just does something different. The place is still filled with kids, it’s just they’re all on their phones. It’s a social event like a bonfire, and the movie is the bonfire. It’s why people gather but it’s not actually there to be looked at.”

    For the Los Angeles Times, Meredith Blake talks with Groff and Holt McCallany, who plays plays Bill Tench, “a cynical veteran who asks what might be the series’ central question: ‘How do we get ahead of crazy if we don’t know how crazy thinks?’”

    “Relative to Fincher’s history as a pioneer in title sequences—the juttering fragmentation of Se7en, the circuitry of the mind in Fight Club, the gleaming formal lettering of Panic Room—the opening credits in Mindhunter are a huge disappointment,” finds Scott Tobias, writing for Vulture. “We get the meticulous rendering of a recording device, interrupted by some flashes of violence, and that’s it. As straightforward as Holden’s suits.” Vashi Nedomansky disagrees; he admires “the use of subliminal edits is used to cue the viewers to the violent world of serial killers. With twenty-three shots that all last just four frames each, Fincher and his editors have created an uncomfortable atmosphere that lashes out and gives a taste of the horrors to come. I’ve captured each of these twenty-three images and let them play out for four seconds each.” The compilation runs 1’51”.

    More from Oliver Lyttelton (Playlist, B+), Sonia Saraiya (Variety), and Ben Travers (IndieWire, B+).

    Update: “Where will the story go in season two? Well, not in the direction you might be thinking.” The Playlist’s Kevin Jagernauth’s got spoilers, so beware.

    Updates, 10/17: Kathryn VanArendonk finds the show “weirdly, freakishly pleasant. Particularly as the series develops, it becomes clear that this process puts a burden on our protagonists, and Mindhunter is certainly not espousing a deep dive into serial-killer mentality as a way to relax. It wants to wind us up; it wants us to feel uneasy. But its central premise is to look at criminality and to decipher it. In Holden’s mind, there are puzzles and there are solutions to those puzzles, and his confidence is only underscored by the inevitable institutional blindness about the importance of his work. The forward-moving story is about identifying and capturing criminals and divining new insights into ‘deviancy’ from men already behind bars—it’s a search for knowledge.”

    Also at Vulture, Jen Chaney argues that “because Mindhunter is a different, more cerebral serial killer–focused series—one that raises questions both subtle and not-so-subtle about how masculinity and misogyny become intertwined—it also feels perfectly appropriate to be viewing it at a time when we’re talking more openly about the cultural conditions that foster the abuse of women. If there is such a thing as the perfect crime procedural for this #metoo moment, Mindhunter, as improbable as that sounds, is it.”

    IndieWire’s David Ehrlich ranks Fincher’s films from worst to best; it’s an annotated list.

    Update, 10/22: “Domestic chambers are often cavernous, lit in aquatic greens and ambers that are rife with shadows, suggesting that danger looms even within the sanctity of the home,” writes Chuck Bowen at Slant. “Offices are bright and disheveled, lit in sterile shades of gray, connoting the numbing banality of bureaucracy, which is navigated by obsessive crusaders who attempt to unify countless signifiers into a passing semblance of truth. The dialogue is often functional, less important than the musical cadences of its delivery. The flatness of everyone's speech, which subtly grows more varied in emotional tempo across the season, complements the set design to suggest an unmooring confusion of professional and personal life.”

    Update, 10/24: “In his quarter-century working in film and television, specifically through five movies and two series, David Fincher has shown a deep-rooted fascination with the remorseless killer,” writes Brogan Morris for Little White Lies.Mindhunter’s plot may echo The Silence of the Lambs, but in execution the show looks like the culmination of Fincher’s career-long obsession. Alien 3’s killer was literally an alien presence that stalked its victims from the shadows; Se7en’s was an enigma only revealed to the audience in the third act; Zodiac offered several suspects without ever pinning down a single culprit; The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo brought us face to face with an everyday murderer after a feature-length hunt; while Gone Girl made a protagonist of a murderous sociopath, not unlike House of Cards, on which Fincher is executive producer and occasional director. If someone were to chronologically binge on Fincher’s filmography, they would witness the slow de-mythologisation of the movie murderer.”

    Update, 10/26: “I place the blame for our current iteration of our cultural anti-hero squarely on the 1993 Joel Schumacher film Falling Down,” writes Jessa Crispin for the Baffler. “The problem with the term ‘toxic masculinity’ is that it wants to pathologize a gender rather than acknowledge that it’s not testosterone at the root of this but rather an expectation that you are entitled to as much money and power as you can gather in your natural life. . . . ‘Peak Michael Douglas,’ as we might call it, is the pathology director David Fincher has made his career exploring and criticizing. . . . Now, with Mindhunter, he shows us how entitlement and toxic masculinity can work as a contagion.”

    The Playlist’s Kevin Jagernauth notes that, talking to Darby Maloney and Paola Mardo of The Frame, Jonathan Groff says Fincher “made it very clear that this was his baby and something that, if it did go for years, he was going to be very heavily involved with, which was good enough for me to sign on the dotted line.”

    Update, 11/3: For Vulture, Miriam Bale talks with Hannah Gross “about Mindhunter, what it’s like working with Fincher, and how she approached such a unique blend of crime and humor.”

    Updates, 11/12: “I expected an intense, albeit emotionally detached, series that would leave little impact,” writes Angelica Jade Bastién. “But Mindhunter enthralled me. By episode three, I was hooked, finding its icy atmosphere and careful consideration of the minute details that come with such investigative work a fascinating way to deflate the mythology that film and TV often continues about serial killers. Most important, Mindhunter proves to be a deft and visceral excavation of the ways misogyny and toxic masculinity festers.”

    Also at Vulture, Kevin Lincoln: “In a sense, Mindhunter serves as an artistic thesis statement for the director, the longform equivalent of ‘I think people are perverts.’ It’s also a reminder of how few filmmakers out there have as much control of their medium as he does.”

    “As the show flows from mode to mode—slow-burn horror, arch workplace comedy, buddy-cop road movie—it returns its attention to performers, and to the daily problem of giving an audience what it wants,” writes Troy Patterson for the New Yorker.

    Update, 11/13: “I want to see the physicality,” Fincher tells Matt Thrift at Little White Lies. “I want to see the shoulders of this character. I like the worn nature of what these guys wear. How they walk when their gait can only be two feet. What does that do to you? How bodies express. The slouch of somebody who has all the time in the world and the erect spine of the guy who’s trying to glean something from them, and how the FBI agent plays with his tie or rolls his eyes and is already packing his stuff to leave . . . All that stuff goes into it, and a lot of television is, ‘Get that Tony Scott close-up.’”

    Update, 12/1: “Netflix has formally ordered a second season of Mindhunter,” reports Nellie Andreeva for Deadline.

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