Netflix’s ‘Mindhunter’ review: A thrilling reinvention of crime procedural

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  • Netflix’s “Mindhunter” is a thrilling origin story of
    the team that studied the psychology of serial
    killers.
  • The series includes real-life serial killers like
    Jerry Brudos, Ed Kemper, and Richard Speck.
  • It is reminiscent of executive producer David Fincher’s
    2007 film “Zodiac.”
  • The show never shows an actual murder or crime
    scene.
  • Within ten episodes, it successfully reinvents
    what a crime procedural can be.

You probably think you know what Netflix’s “Mindhunter” is
like — but you’re wrong.

The new drama, whose executive producers include David
Fincher and Charlize Theron, is set in the late 70s and follows
the FBI team that studied the psychology of serial killers and
murderers, and even came up with the term “serial killer.”
Playwright Joe Penhall adapted the series from the non-fiction
book co-written by John E. Douglas, the FBI agent who
helped invent modern criminal profiling.

“Mindhunter” is, probably not coincidentally, similar in tone,
pacing, and look to Fincher’s excellent 2007 film “Zodiac.”

Essentially, “Mindhunter” is an origin story of the team who
figured out that serial killers are likely to harm animals, wet
the bed over the age of 12, and have terrible relationships with
their mothers — and by default, hatred
toward women, who are usually their victims. 

“Mindhunter,” like 2016’s “Stranger Things,” seemingly came
out of nowhere.

Screeners of the first season were not available to the
press, which is quite rare especially for new shows. Besides the
usual teaser trailer and full trailer, there wasn’t much
marketing for the show. I live in New York City, where ads for TV
shows haunt me for months on my commute. Usually light marketing
and no screeners is a sign that a show is really, really
bad.

So I, and many TV critics, were surprised to find that
“Mindhunter” is incredible.


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In ten episodes, you’ll never actually see a murder, and
you’ll barely even get a glimpse of crime scenes. You might
see, for example, some episodes begin or end with The BTK
killer, Dennis Rader — who wasn’t caught
until the early 2000s — leave or arrive at
a crime scene. But you don’t see him kill. The violence is
depicted and evident in photos, dialogue, and the tension in
every scene with one of the killers in prison. 

FBI agents Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) and Bill Tench
(Holt McCallany) travel around the country educating
law enforcement about the psychology of criminals, in hopes that
it can help them catch a killer or a criminal. They call this
“road school.” While they’re on the road, Holden and Bill visit
high-profile killers in prison. Holden and Bill visit
Richard Speck (Jack Erdie) in one of the show’s most chilling
scenes at a grotesque prison in Joliet, Illinois. In 1966, Speck
murdered eight nursing students in Chicago in one
night. 


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At first, their visits are unknown to their boss at the FBI. But
after their research helps solve a few murders, their boss
gets the project approved, adds Boston University professor
Dr. Wendy Carr (a very excellent and underused Anna Torv) to
the team, and gets them funding.

Every actor playing the real-life killers is so haunting that the
performances will stay with you. And though their performances
are terrifying, killers like Brudos and Kemper are so charming
and empathetic when they share their troubled childhood that you
might end up feeling bad for them, just like special agent
Holden eventually does.

What separates “Mindhunter” from other crime dramas is the way it
intertwines the agents’ personal lives into the story. A lot of
crime shows, particularly on network TV, have a heavy-handed
approach to applying a law enforcement character’s personal life
in to their work life, and vice versa. “Mindhunter” is different.

Holden is a weird guy, but he’s a good one — or so we think.
We watch his first real relationship with grad student Debbie
Mitford (Hannah Gross) blossom, and slowly unravel.
As Holden continues his research and casual, explicit, and
disturbing conversations with murderers, the sympathetic
character established in the first episode shifts completely.


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Throughout the season we learn more about Bill, who is at first
reluctant to do personal interviews with killers. Bill has a
wife and an adopted son, who’s not adjusting well after
three years — and ironically, might exhibit some of
the personality traits they’re finding in the
killers they’re studying.

Dr. Carr, who unfortunately doesn’t get as much alone screen time
as she deserves (she likely will in season two), establishes her
past and personal life in quick scenes that don’t need to explain
anything to the viewer beyond what we see. 

The show’s showcase (or lack thereof) of its female
characters is its primary flaw, with
Dr. Carr — an educated, intelligent closeted
lesbian who doesn’t answer to anybody — losing screen time to her
partners, Holden and Bill, despite the fact that she’s one of the
reasons their department exists
. Holden’s girlfriend,
Debbie, only seems to exist so we are aware that Holden
has a sex life. Her only thing, really, is that she is a grad
student. Bill’s wife, Nancy, is arguably the most developed
female character. She only appears in three episodes, usually to
support her husband, and demonstrates her struggle to parent
their adopted son, Brian.  

In just ten episodes, “Mindhunter” packs significant character
development, mystery, subtle-yet-powerful performances, and
beautiful (but creepy) cinematography, in what turns out to be a
thrilling and educational psychological drama that you
should be watching right now.

You can watch the trailer for “Mindhunter”
below:



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