Criminal intent: ‘Mindhunter’ is a disturbing, compelling dive into the past

By Jim Sabataso
Correspondent

It’s always a delight when a TV show comes out of nowhere and completely takes me by surprise. I was unaware of “Mindhunter” before it appeared in my Netflix recommendations last month, but after one episode, I was hooked. Based on the book, “Mind Hunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit,” by John E. Douglas and Mark Olshaker, the series is a fictionalized retelling of the early days of FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit.

On the surface, “Mindhunter” might seem like yet another true-crime series attempting to cash in on the current popularity of the genre. However, it might be better to think of the series as an origin story of sorts, as it follows the work of a trio of FBI agents and psychologists who literally wrote the book on criminal psychology and profiling by interviewing some of the 20th century’s most notorious serial killers.

Series creator Jon Penhall (“The Road”) gets a boost from executive producers Charlize Theron and David Fincher. Fincher also directs four episodes, and his hand is visible throughout the 10-episode season. The show is a tense, compelling and occasionally uncomfortable journey inside the minds of some truly vile men that brings to mind Fincher’s work on “Zodiac,” “Seven” and “Gone Girl.” Visual depictions of violence are relatively subdued compared to other series — there are grizzlier episodes of “CSI” out there — but the murderous acts are described in great detail, which may be too graphic for some viewers.

Strong direction and storytelling is elevated by a solid cast. Jonathan Groff (“Glee,” “Looking,” “Hamilton”) plays Holden Ford, a young FBI agent whose fascination with decoding the criminal mind is the catalyst for the launch of the BSU at the FBI. Holden is based on real-life FBI agent John E. Douglas, who is also the inspiration for the characters Jack Crawford in “Silence of the Lambs” and Will Graham in “Hannibal.”

Groff brings an intensity to Ford. He is monomaniacal and kind of a jerk; he takes risks that put his department in hot water and creates conflict both with his partners and superiors. Eventually, his obsession with the serial killers he interviews begins to have an effect on his own psychology, as he loses his grip on his objectivity.

Keeping Ford in line is agent Bill Tench, played by Holt McCallany. Tench is based on Robert K. Ressler, another FBI agent who was instrumental in developing criminal profiling. Ressler is also credited with coining the term “serial killer.” Tench is a gruff Bureau vet with a keen understanding of the criminal mind. Unlike his peers, he’s not dismissive of using psychology to inform investigations, but is more successful at translating his work to them than Holden, whose academic approach alienates rank-and-file agents and local law enforcement.

Rounding out the trio is Dr. Wendy Carr, played by Anna Torv (“Fringe”). Based on prominent psychologist Dr. Ann Wolbert Burgess, Carr joins the team to provide an academic framework for the department’s research. Torv is frosty and all-business as Carr; the research is important to her, and she has little patience for the occasionally questionable tactics employed by Tench and especially Ford.

The 1977 setting also provides an opportunity to examine social issues through the lens of the past. While the main characters are refreshingly woke for their time period, there are still examples of blind spots and prejudices they cannot avoid. Ford, a corn-fed Midwestern boy, is both fascinated and frustrated with his progressive girlfriend Debbie, played by Hannah Gross. She is intellectually challenging and sexually adventurous, and it’s entertaining to watch the straight-laced FBI agent engage with a woman like this.

Tench is shown to be even more straight-laced, as he conflates certain types of festishism with deviant behavior, much to Carr’s chagrin. Given Carr is a closeted homosexual at a time when that could be potentially career-ending, she has little patience for sex-negative attitudes.

These moments are less major plot points than reminders of how regressive society was as recently as the late 1970s. In this way, “Mindhunter” is slyly political as it holds up issues of sexuality and gender, and makes us consider if society’s attitudes have really evolved all the much.

It’s easy to get lost in “Mindhunter.” Ford’s obsession is palpable and works successfully as a stand-in for the audience. The interviews with the serial killers are intriguing and off-putting. (Kudos especially to Cameron Britton for his charismatic portrayal of Edmund Kemper.) We have become obsessed with serial killers and true crime. “Mindhunter” explores that obsession and takes us on a dark journey that is both hard to look at and impossible to look away from.

CHECK IT OUT

“Mindhunter” is now streaming on Netflix.

Jim Sabataso

Jim Sabataso is a freelance writer living in Vermont.

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