Martin Carr on why you should watch Netflix’s Mindhunter…
Released in October to a muted fanfare Mindhunter represents another singularly personal project from David Fincher. This article was originally conceived as a series overview but has since morphed into something else entirely. My contention is that Fincher never set out to make a show with mass appeal, but strove instead for a more educational, analytical and original piece of work.
For something so defined by the violent acts of others you see very little in Mindhunter. Fincher is unconcerned by the crimes themselves but precisely what made these men do them. Hence the exacting approach, meticulously scripted exchanges and perpetual distance kept between audience and subject. This fly on the wall mentality increases unease, draws you closer yet strips away emotional attachment. It is this contradiction which is key to the success as there is no pandering and little regard for whether audiences watch. Mindhunter is a separate animal and remains so giving no quarter and making few allowances for convention. Emotionally compromising, psychologically unsettling but with the feel of a visual thesis on criminality, this is merely the first puzzle piece slotted in place.
However if that construction is essential then casting remains key to making those ideas grow. Fincher’s choice of actor for his three principle roles represent a master stroke quickly establishing tone, character and balance. Holden Ford, Bill Tench and Wendy Carr are the only ways into Mindhunter yet continually control the emotional connection. As it progresses the impact of their experiences are personally muted and unsettling yet specifically unique. Which is why relationships, family moments and social interaction feels strangely off kilter throughout. This air of unease directly informs performances which in turn feeds back into structure. Yet Fincher’s consideration for his killers and their casting is perhaps more crucial as seen through the choice for Edmund Kemper.
What Cameron Britton achieves with Kemper is nothing short of career defining. From the first moment he walks in Britton exudes a quietly affable menace, which makes his eloquence all the more disconcerting. Discussions are unnervingly detailed in their mundane delivery yet possess a magnetism which makes each encounter fascinating. There would be those who make Lecter comparisons were it not for the fact that Hannibal is fictitious. Part of the draw being that Edmund Kemper is very much alive unlike many other killers featured here.
These unique examples of human life exhibit markedly different feelings towards their crimes, yet each play a part in making Mindhunter tick. Fincher’s refusal to take sides, make judgements and keep physical encounters asexual also feeds into the overall aesthetic. As to sexualise this subject would diminish impact and compromise an unbiased point of view which the camera needs to maintain. His camera is rarely invasive, never predatory but forever watchful and self-aware, employing a starkly clinical, rigidly poised approach through which Mindhunter’s malignancy still festers. By using the custom-made RED Xenomorph cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt establishes a connection by grounding us in the moment. He employs a combination of studio based set ups and natural light scenarios influencing feel, mood and tonal shifts. No more so than in those unsettling opening titles, which feel more like a televisual Rorschach test for the uninitiated.
Approached in 2010 by Charlize Theron who had optioned the book, Fincher was intrigued but unable to settle on a structure for Mindhunter. Writer Joe Penhall cracked it creating an initial ten episode run, which extended into a five season sixty page bible. What came out was a deeply divisive, darkly engaging piece of meticulous television which Netflix had been waiting for. Flexible story formats and challenging subjects define a brave new world, where censorship is truly subjective and great film directors can grasp creative opportunities. Something in this case we should all be grateful for.