'Mindhunter': TV Review | NYFF 2017

A killer beginning.

The first two episodes of Netflix's FBI profiler drama are a prime showcase for director David Fincher.

It's been over 20 years since David Fincher directed the moody, malevolent serial killer thriller Seven (1995), which had a generation of moviegoers asking, in their best beleaguered Brad Pitt voice, "What's in the box?!?" Netflix's often-mesmerizing new FBI profiler series Mindhunter isn't the glum bit of camp that that film was, though as in Seven, a prime plot point in the first two episodes (written by creator Joe Penhall, directed by Fincher and premiered at the 55th New York Film Festival) revolves around an offscreen severed head used to make a dastardly symbolic point.

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. 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 is also a '70s story, set specifically during the time when the FBI's Behavioral Sciences Unit was coming into its own. The series was inspired by veteran agent John R. Douglas' memoir Mindhunter: Inside the FBI's Elite Serial Crime Unit, though the characters and events have been fictionalized to open up dramatic possibilities, and surely to allow Netflix to milk the property as dry as possible. (A second season has already been ordered.)

This is certainly a compelling beginning, right from the tense scene that introduces us to empathetic young agent Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) as he attempts to defuse a situation involving multiple hostages and a shotgun-toting man off his meds. Groff is immediately persuasive as a person whose raw talent is as much a hindrance as an advantage, and Fincher's surgically precise touch is evident in even tiny details like the police bullhorn that distorts a cop's voice to just the right unnerving degree. (The sound design by Fincher regular Ren Klyce is impeccable throughout both episodes.) The standoff ends in a shockingly gory way, and Holden is consigned, for the most part, to the Quantico classroom where he instructs new agents in the musty ways of an FBI that hasn't much changed since J. Edgar Hoover walked the halls.

A good portion of the first episode is given over to Holden's endearingly cloddish ways with the world at large. Strait-laced in every facet from hairstyle to wardrobe to attitude, he's certainly at a loss when it comes to the post-Woodstock hippies and burgeoning punk rockers defiantly living their lives around him. He even falls in with one of these rebels, Debbie (Hannah Gross), who he meets-cute at a bar, then converses with about French sociologist David Emile Durkheim at an eardrum-shattering hardcore show. Fincher hilariously captions their dialogue in subtitles, a brilliant visual joke that also gets, movingly, at the divides that emerge on many a first date.

Soon enough, Holden is trying pot for the first time, marveling during a movie-night-out at the realism of Sidney Lumet's Dog Day Afternoon (which he later uses, quite brilliantly, as a teaching tool) and being instructed by Debbie in dirty-talk cunnilingus. His real affections, however, lie elsewhere and only blossom after he meets Behavioral Science head Bill Tench (Holt McCallany, an old-reliable supporting player for Fincher and many others, here given a commanding lead role). They're tasked with traveling around the country — location names are splashed in the big blocky text that fills the screen — and instructing local law enforcement in bridging the compassionate gap with criminals. But while on one such assignment, Holden sees an opportunity to further expand their methods by interviewing a known murderer, Edmund (Cameron Britton, as unnerving in his towering well-spokenness as Zodiac's John Carroll Lynch), and noting down his insights.

So 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? And in these two episodes, it's never less than engrossing. Fincher has proven time and again that he can make even the most mundane activities and actions riveting. It could be a probing conversation between characters (often edited with the clipped, quick efficiency of a Golden Age screwball comedy), or a simple shot of a jacket slipping off of a chair. The rhythms are so precise that even moments you'd think would land with a thud, such as a time-passing montage scored to the Steve Miller Band's "Fly Like an Eagle," come off as inspired. There's no telling if the series can maintain this level of quality, though Fincher seems much more hands-on here (directing four episodes in total, and helping to pick the helmers — Andrew Douglas, Tobias Lindholm and Asif Kapadia — behind the other six) than he did with Netflix's flagship original House of Cards. So there's reason to hope this tale about the psychology of cut-throats won't too quickly become cut-rate.

Creator: Joe Penhall
Cast: Jonathan Groff, Holt McCallanay, Anna Torv, Hannah Gross
David Fincher
Venue: New York Film Festival (Special Events)
Premieres: Friday (Netflix)