David Fincher Digs Deep Into Serial Killers With ‘Mindhunter’ [Review]

Despite “Gone Girl” being one of the biggest hits of his career, it’s been a tough few years for David Fincher. He looked set to capitalize on the success of that movie, and the peak TV boom, with two HBO series: the semi-autobiographical 80s music-video-world dramedy “Videosynchrazy,” and the British conspiracy thriller remake “Utopia.” But budgetary issues and creative clashes saw production scrapped midway through the first season of the former, and the plug pulled on the eve of the pilot, which would have starred Rooney Mara, of the latter.

As a result, we haven’t seen anything from the director in nearly three years, with his next movie, the sequel to “World War Z,” still seemingly without a firm greenlight. But the good news is that Fincher’s return to small screen is finally upon us, with Netflix debuting “MINDHUNTER” (yes, the title is apparently all in capitals: personally we wished Fincher had taken a leaf from Darren Aronofsky‘s book and called it “mindhunter!‘)  executive produced and (in the case of four episodes, including the first two) directed by Fincher, this Friday. And from the opening two hours we saw at the BFI London Film Festival this morning, you’re going to want to set aside some time this weekend to dive into it.

Once in development in HBO, executive produced by Charlize Theron, created by “The Road” screenwriter Joe Penhall, and based on the book “Mind Hunter: Inside The FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit” by Mark Olshaker and John E. Douglas, it returns Fincher to the subject matter with which he’s arguably had the greatest creative success, thanks to “Se7en” and “Zodiac”: serial killers.

It’s closer to the latter than the former, being a true crime tale set in the 1970s. It opens with a bloody hostage situation, as FBI agent Holden Ford (“Looking” and “Hamilton” star Jonathan Groff) tries, and fails, to talk down a disturbed man who believes he’s invisible. After an encounter with a psychology lecturer, and a beautiful sociology post-grad student who’ll become his girlfriend (Hannah Gross), Ford convinces his skeptical, stuck-in-his-ways boss Shepard (Cotter Smith) to let him study modern scientific thought on criminology.

This in turn brings him to the attention of the head of the Bureau’s behavioural sciences division, Bill Tench (Fincher regular Holt McCallany), who needs an assistant as he travels the country and attempts to educate local police forces about their work. But even he is resistant when Ford suggests that they take some time out to talk to Edmund Kemper (Cameron Britton), the so-called Co-Ed Killer, who murdered eight women, including his mother, and had sex with their corpses. But it will begin a process that will eventually revolutionize law enforcement.

By digging into the birth of criminal profiling, and the use of interviews of killers in order to catch others like them, there’s something of a risk: since “The Silence Of The Lambs,” countless imitators on film and TV have covered this sort of territory, and it could end up feeling like old hat (in fact, Scott Glenn’s character in ‘Silence’ was inspired directly by John Douglas). Indeed, in the early going (and what we’ve seen is really only a glimpse: it’s very much a two-part pilot and the premise is only really firmly established by the end of the second hour), you might start to wonder if the show will be anything more than a particularly well-shot take on “Criminal Minds” and its ilk.

But as the set-up moves on and Penhall’s script digs in, it becomes clear that, as with “Zodiac” (and the show resembles less the whole of that film in general, and more specifically the haunting final scene with John Carroll Lynch’s suspect), it’s the detail and psychological realism that sets this apart. At times, it feels closer to docudrama than procedural, with academic theories discussed in detail and long, unbroken interview sequences — fans of true crime shows like “Making A Murderer” are likely to be more at home than “Law & Order” obsessives.

READ MORE: David Fincher Talks ‘Mindhunter,’ Lessons Learned From ‘Zodiac’ & More On ‘Charlie Rose’

Initially, that’s to the series’ detriment. In the first hour, there are a few slightly stiff, awkwardly-written scenes of exposition that seem more like demonstrations of research rather than actual drama. But they do pay off before the end of the second episode, particularly in the utterly gripping sequences where Ford talks to Kemper. The potential is here for a show that gets stuck further into the mind of murderers than anything we’ve seen before.

Whether that appeals to you is a bigger question: there’s a certain dryness to the show in the early going, and when it’s tempered, it’s by some typically Fincherian jet-black humour (when Ford wants to take his gun to his first conversation with Kemper, Tench tells him “He’s going to take it away from you, he’s going to kill you with it, and he’s going to have sex with your face.” It’s funnier in the telling, trust me.). A sequence where Ford gets his subject to open up about his deep misogyny by commiserating with him about women is likely to spawn a thinkpiece or five, and the whole thing may just be too unrelenting for some.

To me, it resonated much more so now than if it had reached the screen a few years earlier, as intended. One character laments early on that whereas the FBI was founded to track down self-interested criminals like Dillinger, now their targets are killers seemingly without logic and reason like Charles Manson and David Berkowitz, and it’s hard not to find echoes of our own world-gone-mad in his existential despair.

It helps that there are already strong performances at its centre. Groff has a slightly bland exterior, but he has an innate sensitivity, a vibe that he’s not quite as square as he appears, and even a dark undercurrent that makes Ford a compelling lead. McCallany’s character hasn’t been opened up much yet, but every one of his moments is utterly truthful, and he brings some needed levity to proceedings too. It’s Britton, as killer Kempner, who lingers longest: his arrogance and intelligence is exactly what the show needs to get its hooks into you. And what seems to have been a deliberate decision to eschew star casting throughout is also a real boon: the unfamiliarity of most of the faces really adds to the docudrama feel.

And of course, this being Fincher, it looks and sounds nearly impeccable. As with his “House Of Cards” episodes, the direction’s probably a little more functional than his feature work (giant place-setting captions are the biggest stylistic flourish), but Fincher being functional is still anyone else at the top of their game, and frankly anything else would have distracted from the material. Only a couple of on-the-nose needle drops (of course, the second hour ends with Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer”) feel ill-advised.

It’s always tough to review a show after just two episodes, especially one as serialized and, seemingly, ready to evolve as this one (Anna Torv, third-billed in the cast, isn’t glimpsed at all in the first two hours). And if you’re already fed up of serial killer fare, it’s unlikely to change your mind. But I can pay it no higher compliment to say that, as the credits rolled after the first two episodes, with mid-festival exhaustion firmly setting in, I’d happily have sat there for the rest of the day to watch the remaining ones. [B+]

The first two episodes of “MINDHUNTER” screen at the BFI London Film Festival today, and at NYFF tomorrow. The whole series hits Netflix this Friday, October 13th.

Click here for our complete coverage of the 2017 BFI London Film Festival