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When the Abyss Stares Back at You: Mindhunter and Its Monsters

“I was a regular guy most of my life, with a nice home, nice suburb, I had pets I went to a good school, I was thoughtful, educated, well brought up young person, no question about it. But, at the same time, I was living a vile, depraved, entirely parallel other life filled with debased violence and mayhem and fear.”

How do you solve a problem like Edmund Kemper? How do you even contemplate depravity like Richard Speck? Why did the modern version of the deviant mind spawn so many twisted offshoots in an era when America was shifting dramatically toward war protests, feminism, and civil rights? As most of the country was embracing liberation, why did so many aberrant men react so savagely? Now over 40 years later, no one has yet to give us a satisfactory answer to these questions, but a handful of people recognized that this was a new kind of crime that demanded a new type of investigation.

Everyone who’s seen The Silence of the Lambs is already familiar with the FBI’s Behavioral Sciences Unit, where Clarice Starling trained as the bureau’s sharpest apprentice under Jack “the guru” Crawford. Jack Crawford’s role was based on the legendary John Douglas. David Fincher’s new Netflix series Mindhunter takes us back to 1977 to witness the formation of the now indispensable investigative unit that began as little more than a school of thought. Shoe fetishes? Mother obsession? Animal cruelty? The deviant mind of the serial killer is a dark and ugly place to go. They had to go there. They had no other choice. Mindhunter is about that journey, and about how it almost destroyed those involved in it.

Though not exactly a Douglas biopic – Mindhunter traces the arc of how Douglas’ nascent intuition developed into an applied science.  Jonathan Groff plays Holden Ford (based on Douglas) who’s been called in to help manage a hostage negotiation that spirals quickly out of control. In his hostage negotiation Ford displays much of what his character will come to be – a guy who notices things others don’t (“I can see that you’re scared. And I can see that it’s cold.”). But Ford and his partner Bill Tench (Holt McCallany, standing in for actual FBI agent Robert K. Ressler) are confronted with a sadistic murder they don’t have the skill set for – because who does? A rape of a mother and her son, brutal and violent and unimaginable. With that, they set out to learn the skills, develop the minds that can “go there” with the worst of them. And go there they do.

Eventually they’ll work with Dr. Wendy Carr (Anna Torv, based on Dr. Ann Wolbert Burgess – together these three will collaborate for the next decade and eventually co-author the milestone book, Sexual Homicide: Patterns and Motives).  As Ford, Tench and Carr let their curiosity guide them in their single-minded obsession to crack the code, the narrative thread of Fincher’s Mindhunter becomes clear: there’s no time to wait for their research to nail down concrete answers while so many monsters roam the quiet hillsides.

There are killers, and there are barbaric killers, and then there is the 6’9″ behemoth named Edmund Kemper who did unimaginable things to animals, young women, and eventually to his own mother.

Kemper will come to represent a perverse sort of muse for Ford, and as the series unfolds that relationship becomes increasingly treacherous — because to win the trust of a murderer is the riskiest of toxic friendships. Turns out Kemper has as many manipulative tricks in his toolbox as Ford does. Mindhunter gets the mind of sick individuals so right that it shows how easily they can sidle up next to their prey before anyone senses danger. It never does what other lazy narratives on serial killers sometimes do: telegraph oddities to make villains so obviously crazy anyone could spot them from a mile away. No, these bent men are able to come across as so normal that no one notices them prowl amongst us. They have learned how to drift in and out of normal society unrecognized. What they all have in common is a sociopathic lack of conscience and remorse, a pathology of merciless apathy, and a recurrent obsession with inflicting grievous violence on innocent people, usually women or children – but of course, not always women.

In every prison town they visit where a beast has already been caged, there are more signs of fresh footprints that baffle local law enforcement, good cops who are unprepared for such inexplicable havoc, desperate to get a handle on the fresh hell that’s been unleashed. At some point it becomes clear that Ford is willing to go to further extremes when his associates would rather proceed with caution. Tench and Carr are pumping the brakes to avoid a reckless tailspin, but Ford feels it’s imperative to gun it and move faster.

When he crosses that line he places the team in jeopardy, and puts his own psyche in peril. He begins to lose sight of what separates them from us. They can murder at will for nothing much more than pair of shoes, with dismembered feet still in them. They take what they want without hesitation, like a rogue coyote trotting through the neighborhood looking for a hapless family cat (with all due respect to the coyote who needs to eat).

Ford finds that his curiosity and his special affinity for tapping into the madness draws him so close to the bottled-up depravity of the men he interviews that he might not be able to pull away of it. It begins to affect every corner of his life. It bleeds into it bit by bit – he orders an egg salad sandwich because Kemper mentioned one. He strokes a high heel shoe. Eventually he starts talking like them, thinking like them. But knowing too much about people can disrupt normal life. These criminals do not dwell among the living, but among the almost-dead, the terrified. Ford begins to feel his grip on normalcy fade. This focus on personality types that willfully detach themselves from the rest of us is a classic Fincher thumbprint. It’s part of a recurring theme, chronicling how obsession and alienation shadow his outcast protagonists and erect an impenetrable dividing wall that will always separate a few from the many.

We all believe we can handle whatever madness life throws at us, and Ford believes he can handle it too. Except that his job is sitting at the same table with madness itself. One minute Kemper is talking about sex and the next minute we find out that his idea of sex entails fucking a severed head in the throat — his mother’s severed head. At some point, all this begins to mess with Ford’s head too, as it would for any fairly normal person who opens himself up to this much mayhem, listens too intently to a maniac, and then forces himself to think about it too much. It’s an unfathomable darkness that robs humanity of its light, and it’s more than enough to derail anyone who gets too close. Ford, by the end of this first season of Mindhunter, gets so close that by the end of it he can barely breathe. He has let it in. And it has terrified the shit out of him.

It is fascinating to watch this series unfold episode by episode. Like House of Cards it plays like a long movie. We are given a respite in between episodes with a seductive and compulsively watchable opening credit sequence peppered with jump cuts calculated to inflict maximum subliminal dread, and end credits that scroll to unsettling soundtracks. Naturally, because it’s Fincher, you know the music – and every other minute detail – is going to be on point with the time period. Dog Day Afternoon and smoking on airplanes. Dairy Queen walk-ups and touch-tone telephones. Polyester and platforms.

Entire seventies towns are recreated with street scenes both seedy and vibrant that extend to vanishing points in the distance. Perpetually overcast skies weigh down with grim resignation and every frame is thick with quiet, subtle tension. The foreboding sense of suspense comes not from watching protagonists run for their lives from knife wielding serial killers, but rather from the excruciating peeling back of layers of normalcy, as we come to comprehend one unspeakable psycho after another.

None of the actors are particularly well known, which lends an unpredictability as to where the season might take them. Jonathan Groff, most recently seen HBO’s Looking maybe isn’t the type of guy you’d expect in a role like this, but his slightly quizzical dissonance of ill-fitting pluck works perfectly here because we never really know how he will react or which way he’ll take a scene. His most formidable opponent in this battle of wits between hunter and feral creature is of course Cameron Britton as Kemper, a diabolical showstopper, a hulk of amiable menace, giving us what has to be the single best portrayal of a serial killer ever. There’s a welcome of infusion of humor here too, though it’s every bit as dark as it needs to be, with lots of great lines revolving around Kemper, like “he’s going to kill you and then he’s going to have sex with your face.”

Fincher directs the first two episodes and the last two, but his unmistakable signature is all over Mindhunter. Like the best of his work, the more you watch of it the better it gets. Fincher, like all the masters of suspense, seems to operate on a different frequency that repeat viewings will always render a deeper experience than just once through. And so it goes with Mindhunter. A whole new world emerges after the second time through and the third time through.

It’s quite a time for movie lovers to be alive, with something this good to be so easily available for the nominal cost of a Netflix subscription. Without the too-close scrutiny of what some film criticism has now become, and without the need to score box-office performance on opening weekend, it is most often here on alternative platforms where creativity can flourish. Although productions by streaming services are still somewhat controversial where feature films are concerned, there is no denying that Mindhunter keeps the promise that House of Cards made nearly five years ago – that you simply can’t get anything this expansive, this penetrating, or this good anywhere else. Fincher took Netflix to the next level with House of Cards and he’s done it again with Mindhunter.

The second season of Mindhunter has been announced and Fincher has said it will be about the Atlanta child murders. We go there not because we thirst for darkness, not because we delight in watching terrible things happening to innocent people but because there are monsters among us. We want to know – feel compelled to know – who they are.