Mindhunter is a mesmerizing and haunting tale as we watch engaging characters get inside the heads of serial killers.
Creator: Joe Penhall
Summary: In the late 1970s, two FBI agents expand criminal science by delving into the psychology of murder and getting uneasily close to all-too-real monsters.
The police procedural is one of the most tired genres on television. To see this, one only needs to look at how many spinoffs there are for Law and Order and how many episodes they have. The various CSI and NCIS shows; Bones going on for way too many seasons — this is a genre that isn't lacking in material. If a police procedural is going to make any sort of impact, it needs to be different — and the new Netflix original series Mindhunter, based on a true story, is absolutely the shot in the arm (pun intended) that the police procedural needed.
The first thing someone is bound to notice when they watch an episode of Mindhunter is that the dialogue is top notch. One of the writers, Joe Penhall, is a seasoned playwright. The rapid, Aaron Sorkin-esque way these characters talk to each other can be a little off-putting at times, but once you settle into it, it just flows so well.
The dialogue is also important when the agents start to interview the serial killers and you have to listen to them describe their crimes. These descriptions are only words, but the way they're performed make these scenes much more affecting than if they'd shown the crimes being committed. Mindhunter describes a lot of horrific things and shows crime scene photos, but it doesn't reenact the murders in a way you might expect from a crime show. For the interviews, a lot of the dialogue was lifted word for word from real-life killers, and you find yourself just as uncomfortable — yet fascinated — as our two agents are.
The two agents in question are Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) and Bill Tench (Holt McCallany), who partner up when Bill needs help with Road School, taking them around the country as they teach FBI techniques to city cops. Holden gets the idea to interview serial killers — a term invented by these investigators themselves in the 1970s.
The first man he interviews is the charismatic Edmund Kemper, AKA the Co-Ed Killer (Cameron Britton). As the series progresses, we watch Holden and Bill interview more and more killers. When they bring on Wendy Carr (Anna Torv), they receive some funding for the interviews, and the three of them turn their little hobby into a full-blown research project.
However, as these characters discuss increasingly horrifying things, we see Holden becoming more and more affected. We watch him slowly change to the point where the Holden in episode one is nothing like the Holden in episode 10. He might be the main character, but by the end, we question whether he's the protagonist anymore.
Groff is fantastic in this role. This is a star-making turn for him, and it's the little things that make him stand apart. He makes Holden this awkward presence that often comes across as extremely young and maybe a little naive. However, once Holden starts being affected by the research, these little ticks start to emerge. The nuance of his voice changes a little as molds himself into something each specific killer would be comfortable talking to. It's an incredibly subtle performance, and when the harsh weight of reality comes crashing down in the closing moments of episode 10, you're left on the edge of your seat.
McCallany is also great, playing a man who is so over Holden's enthusiasm. McCallany plays the role of the grumpy dad who is dealing with an overly eager kid, which only becomes more and more apparent as the series progresses and Holden starts to fall. Tench is a fascinating character who is dealing with his own personal demons. He realizes that seeing all of this is affecting him in more ways than he's willing to admit. McCallany's performance is subtle, as well, and as we learn more about Tench, the better we understand his initial hesitation and why he's holding back.
The show is primarily focused on male characters, as all of the serial killers and Holden and Tench are men, but it does feature a couple of prominent women characters. Hannah Gross plays Debbie Mitford, a young women that Holden meets in a bar in the first episode. Debbie challenges Holden's perceptions as she is a young intellectual who smokes pot and embodies parts of the "hippie" mentality. Their relationship is interesting as it shows just how badly suited Holden is to interacting with other human beings at times. He's awkward around Debbie, but they seem to genuinely care for each other.
Anna Torv plays Wendy Carr, a psychologist that Holden and Tench brings onto the serial killer experiment once receive funding. Carr wants to handle the study using more scientific angle. Torv is a magnetic presence who effortlessly steals every scene she's in. They go somewhere interesting with her considering the time period this is set in, and she isn't a pushover. She might be the lone woman of this little group and doesn't have the combat experience that Holden and Tench do, but she's way smarter than any of them and isn't afraid to let them know it.
The excellent characters bring all of this back to reality and knowing that the crimes that are being described are real. We're watching the formation of an entire field of science when it comes to criminals, and while this isn't a perfect account of what happened, it's still fascinating to watch. We see this group come up with the word "serial killer" and we know that the work they are doing is going to help save lives. However, the show does not shy away from the fact that good intentions doesn't mean there can't be horrible consequences for other people involved.
The aspect of the show that is the most elusive is another serial killer we watch in snippets throughout the episodes. We know he's about to do something terrible, and every scene where we see him watching a family or interacting with someone in a way that's a little off is terrifying to watch. We don't see what he's done or what he's going to do, but by the end, we understand this is a dangerous man — and he's adapting. Through a little research, you can figure out which real-life killer he's based on.
Mindhunter is one of those rare shows that works on almost every level. It takes a tired genre and breathes new life into it. It tells an important part of history in a way that's compelling, interesting, and engaging to watch. It delves into the darkest aspects of human nature itself, but never turns to gore or torture porn to get its point across. You see the characters evolve so slowly and beautifully that as soon as the credits roll, you want to start over again so you can watch the progression again from the beginning. It ends with a cliffhanger — one that will have you demanding season two right now.
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