Photo: Netflix
Photo: Netflix

‘Mindhunter’ is about death by dialogue

David Fincher's superb new Netflix series is about FBI agents talking to America's most fearsome multiple murderers to find out 'how crazy thinks'

Trust David Fincher to give you an answer you never wanted. Psycho Killer—a song David Byrne wrote for his band Talking Heads in 1977, right after the notorious “Son Of Sam" killings—has one of rock music’s most exquisite hooks, where the urgent chorus rests on the rhythmic French query—Qu’est-ce que c’est—basically asking what a “psycho killer" even is. The song was written at roughly the same time as the FBI agents in Fincher’s new Netflix series Mindhunter are pecking at the thought processes behind nightmarish murderers. The term “serial killer" does not exist. At least not when the show starts.

Fincher’s show follows two FBI researchers, Holden Ford and Bill Tench, as they sit across the table and share pizza with sickening psychopaths and killers, in an attempt to see what makes them tick differently. They are looking for patterns as they try to unravel irrational criminal minds, while Fincher is grounding us in some of the best dialogue writing on television. A killer describes the idea of killing as something that “pops in your head like a sneeze", while another—a hulking man who speaks with the delicate deliberation of an oversized Philip Seymour Hoffman—explains what it truly means to cut a person’s neck from ear to ear: “People think it’s just an expression. It’s not. It’s an instruction."

This is as grisly as subjects get, though Fincher—who made detective films like Zodiac and Se7en but also, it must be remembered, the staggeringly conversational masterpiece The Social Network—keeps his focus away from the gore and trains it on the way the mind works. The approach is investigative and even forensic, and the writing is insightful as well as fascinatingly structured. The questions from the FBI agents are sharp, curious, reasoned—questions we would like answers to. The responses are unexpected, illuminating and often disarmingly articulate. A killer called Ed Kemper, known for decapitating his victims and performing sexual acts on their dismembered body parts, refers to his body of work as his oeuvre—a word mostly used for artists, particularly film-makers—and then asks the detective if he can spell “oeuvre".

Based on the true crime book Mindhunter: Inside The FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit, the show is created by English-Australian playwright Joe Penhall and bears all the trademarks we have come to expect from Fincher’s work. Fincher, an executive producer, has directed four of the 10 episodes—the first two and the last two—and his stamp is unmistakable on the show even when episodes are directed by distinctive film-makers like Asif Kapadia. The colours are muted greens and yellows, the conversations follow an extreme, albeit self-defined formalism in terms of framing and coverage, and the cinematography is surgically precise, even though because it’s Fincher, I’m certain much of the framing has been zoomed in on and finalized during post-production.

The words are a work of art, and none are spoken in passing. Everything in this show means something. Including the timing for each of the exceptionally well-picked songs that play over the closing credits, including that inevitable one by Talking Heads, so that they work as a coda to the scenes we have just seen.

The protagonist here is special agent Holden Ford, played by Jonathan Groff, a fresh-faced young man who wears charcoal-grey suits that all look like a suit he claims his father bought for him. He doesn’t seem particularly perceptive or strikingly intelligent—at least at first—but he does seem interested and open to ideas. Alongside him is agent Bill Tench, played by Holt McCallany, an older, granite-jawed man who prefers magazines that have centrefolds, and who adopts a position of stoic inscrutability during the interviews with the killers. More often than not, he sits there and waits for the words to flow out. We have terrific performances from Hannah Gross as Debbie, Ford’s incredibly sharp girlfriend, and, perhaps best of all, from Cameron Britton as the frightening and wholly fascinating Edmund Kemper.

“How do we get ahead of crazy if we don’t know how crazy thinks?" asks Tench, summing up the objective of this show and its heroes. This is a drama about intelligence and how it works. It is about what makes fearsome people do what they do and what makes fearless people ask what they ask. Mindhunter expertly manipulates you to the edge of your seat even when you know the most thrilling thing coming your way is a surprising syllable. And how often do we find ourselves buckling up for insight?


Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online.

@rajasen
lounge@livemint.com

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