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Tuesday
Oct172017

Are you watching "Mindhunter"? (Episodes 1-3)

by Nathaniel R

an FBI hostage negotiation class in "Mindhunter"'s first episode

One of the underdiscussed perks of this era of way too much to watch with thousands of cable channels, dozens of streaming services bankrolling their own content, and hundreds of movies a year is that it's easy to forget what your favorite directors are working on! Gone are the days, essentially, when you had to pine away waiting for so-and-so to return. Take the case of David Fincher. I've literally been a fan since he won "Best Direction" at the MTV Video Music Awards for Madonna's "Express Yourself" and I went to Alien³ on opening weekend so I was there at ground zero. Despite my love of all most things Fincher, it was easy to forget that he'd vanished since his excellent intensely rewatchable Gone Girl (2014) which we really should have had on our top ten list that year -- oops.

The director is back trying his hand at streaming series direction with the new serial killer drama "Mindhunter." At first I groaned when I heard the news because Fincher has made more than his share of serial killer dramas. But then I heard dreamy Jonathan Gr♥︎ff and Fincher-regular Holt McCallany were the leads and remembered that Fincher does serial killer dramas better than anyone (see Se7en and Zodiac) and I succumbed...

So let's talk about the first three episodes.

Holden (Jonathan Groff) is really into "Dog Day Afternoon"

1.1 FBI agent Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) is disillusioned with his career as a hostage negotiation instructor. Things begin to look up with a new girlfriend (Hannah Gross) and a new ally in veteran agent Bill Trench (Holt McCallany) who travels around the country teaching local police forces about a more unusual kind of criminal.

Stuffy. Uptight. Dull. That's how one might describe Agent Holden Ford, the lead of Mindhunter, at first glance. It's not an accurate read but an understandable one. He's always in a tight suit. He's so stralght-laced in appearance and demeanor that he's pegged as a Mormon (he's not). He seems slightly incongruous in a bar he hits to unwind after a frustrating series of events at work that finds him demoted (as he sees it) to dull teaching work as opposed to being out in the field. He's so tense it feels like a kind of miracle when he ends up taking a 'hippie' named Debbie home (Hannah Gross) who seems to find his stuffiness amusing.

The first episode of Mindhunter is much the same. The series is an unmistakable slow burn but that's only if you get past the first impression which is that it's just slow -- uncomfortable even. One early wide shot of Holden alone in his apartment is so still and somber it suggests menace or anti-social behavior or loneliness (none of which truly apply to Holden, making the shot feel auteurial for its own sake. The series feels tense before it even finds its lack of urgency. But that's around the corner.  

MVP: Jonathan Groff, who manages to be really funny without being FUNNY, merely by playing Holden's earnest ambitions and all-work focus so straight. His "good, good" when a student faux shoots himself in a mock hostage negotiation role-play just killed me.

FBI Boss: [Indicating Holden] Can you make him shut up?

Agent Trench: I have not been able to do that sir.

1.2 Against Trench's wishes, Holden interviews the Coed killer Ed Kemper (Cameron Britton) and become convinces that researching the minds of "sequence killers" is the way forward for the FBI. His boss doesn't think so and Holden and Trench are given strict reins (and basement offices) as punishment.

In episode 2 things pick up considerably. Once Holden and Trench are out in the open air away from their offices the series is able to breathe. The chemistry between the leading actors is immediately palpable. They're a standard buddy movie odd couple in some ways but they also like each other immediately, cutting out the forced arcs that often come with that territory. The internal drama is not "will they learn to work together?" but how will working together subtly change them? Now that's something to build an ongoing series around.

Though the show plays slow (the scenes are blissfully lengthy, never rushed) the dynamics between characters and the plot actually does move quickly. 

Trench resists Holden's obsessive belief that meeting violent sociopaths will help them understand the most dangerous and abnormal criminal minds but within the space of this one episode he's changed his mind. 

MVP: Cameron Britton as Ed Kemper. He's appallingly banal in his evil and even subversively gentle (note the patting of Holden's arm after an anatomy discussion about slicing someone's throat). He's always trying to make Holden comfortable but leaves us, the audience, wholly discomfitted.  

1.3 Holden & Trench's new theories about the criminal mind result in their first arrest of a budding killer after his first two attacks. They meet Dr Wendy Carr (Anna Torv) who encourages them to take their research further.

Each episode is better than the last! The chemistry between McCallany and Groff really pays off in this episode, especially in the way you begin to see Trench's aggravation and protectiveness in the face of Groff's perpetual difficulty in connecting with layman police officers while discussing crimes. He's always making it too academic and abstract leaving local officials perplexed or angry and leaving Trench to put things in layman's terms for them. One lengthy scene, with a budding killer who they arrest quickly using things they learned from Ed Kemper, plays like too easy a win in the context of the show's careful mood building and methodical precision. You suspect further crimes won't be solved so easily. 

Bonus points for a subtly funny scene wherein Holden has a secretar remove sex words like "cunninglingus" and "cocksucker" from the FBI's Deviant Terminology list. It's especially amusing when juxtaposed with the series ongoing curious interest in Holden's rather sweaty sex life with Debbie... who Hannah Gross keeps appealingly opaque despite how clearly she telegraphs Debbie's specific fondness for Holden.

MVP: Jonathan Groff & Holt McCallany's chemistry

If you're watching the show, what did you think of the first three episodes? (no spoilers for the rest of the series please)

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Reader Comments (16)

I've said it before and I'll say it again, but are we all good with giving Britton the Emmy for guest actor in a drama?

He is mesmerizing

October 17, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterBen

It took me 4 days to watch first 2 episodes. Third one was better but I don't see myself finishing the series anytime soon. For some reason I'm not at all interested if they write a book about "sequential" killers or not ...

October 17, 2017 | Unregistered Commenteradelutza

I`m already up to episode 8 and it is amazing telling a story that is engaging on multiple levels , it does a lot to immerse us, and little to put us at ease, it is artful, substantial and there`s a brilliancy in its casting , definitely Awards material.

October 17, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterEder Arcas

The stilted, uncomfortable bar pickup scene in the first episode nearly killed my interest in the series. I was almost certain that the two characters actually knew each other, and were pretending to be strangers so they could engage in some kind of role-playing routine to spice up their relationship. When that turned out not to be the case, I thought it was a serious misstep.

Later, I wondered if it might have been some sort of homage to the scene in "The Manchurian Candidate," when Maj. Marco meets Eugenie Rose on the train. The dialogue in that scene makes absolutely no sense, but somehow, it works.

Best part so far: Cameron Britton as Ed Kemper. Beautiful performance!

October 17, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterbcarter3

Hi Nathaniel. Will you review Wonder Wheel?

October 18, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterAdam

Cameron Briton as Kemper is worth to watch. Glued to screen when he talks

Yes Britton is fav in guest supporting actor

October 18, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterManuel

Is this all fictional, or is it "based on a true story"? It's Fincher, so I will be there, regardless.

Has it really been 3 years since "Gone Girl"? Where. Is. The. Time. GOING?!?!?!

October 18, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterforever1267

Love this series and love Groff in it. Totally agree that Britton is fantastic. This feels like a natural progression of Fincher's work (Seven, Zodiac, Dragon Tattoo, Gone Girl)... and it creeps me out, but I'm still here for it. The vibe of the show reminds me so much of Zodiac, which I consider Fincher's best work - sprawling and unpredictable and as harrowingly empty as a case against a mad killer should feel.

October 18, 2017 | Unregistered Commentereurocheese

I'm 2 episodes in and only so-so on the series so far. It's interesting enough but one female character - the token girlfriend, removed from the story, no less - is very disappointing (but not surprising, even in 2017). It doesn't help that, quite frankly, I think Gross is just not very good. Interesting character, dull actress.

That gentle little tap on the arm that you mentioned just killed me. So much in such a little gesture. Britton is just fantastic.

October 18, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterDJDeeJay

David Fincher has had such a disappointing carer -
he could've been one of the all time greats - his sense of Mise-en-scène is almost unparalleled in american movies.
And he has made 4 great movies - Se7en, The Game, Zodiac, The Social Network.

But he's made too many terrible movies - Alien 3, Panic Room, Benjamin Button, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, Gone Girl.
And now he's doing another TV show?!
And worse - World War Z 2!

He's only as good as the scripts he's working from
- I hope the good scripts find him again soon.

October 18, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterUlrich

As a fan of Fincher and serial killer thrillers / dramas (or simply Se7en and Zodiac), I love it. (I'm after five episodes) The pacing is perfect, Tench and Ford are great duo and cinematography is better than in most cinema releases.

Just one small thing, Nathaniel:

note the patting of Holden's arm after an anatomy discussion about slicing someone's throat
It was about the difference between f*cking an ass and a throat.

October 18, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterMierzwiak

I watched the whole series this weekend. What a great show. Groff gets better with each episode and subtly and slowly turns into a monster himself. The interviews with hideous men are often the show's best scenes. The show lacks the gratuitous violence you would expect, but makes up for it with the fucked up interviews. I'm looking forward to the next season!

October 18, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterRaul

Ulrich: Mmm, I'd say there's 3 great projects (as in ones I'd be comfortable giving an A or A+ grade to) (Se7en, Fight Club and The Social Network), 1 terrible one (Benjamin Button) and at least 4 projects (Zodiac, Dragon Tattoo, Gone Girl and (his episodes of) Mindhunter), that fall in the "competent but not masterful" zone with 2 (The Game and Panic Room) unseen. As for what I think Fincher needs to do next? A direct cartoon adaptation to live action. What are my candidates? Disney's Filmore!, using that stupidly disturbing story of Trump wanting to deputize school safety officers to work for immigration enforcement and Invader Zim, so Fincher can say he did something sci-fi.

October 18, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

I'm about five episodes in, and enjoying it a lot-- for me it's getting better with every episode. The direction/cinematography are stand-outs for me, and I quite like the main duo. The main female character is a bit disappointing so far, and there's something about the way she says her lines that sounds strange to me (they come across as kind of stilted). Love that Anna Torv is involved, as I really liked her in Fringe.

October 18, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterArabella

Finally I finished watching this show tonight after four days. I must accept there were times that my mind wandered to a happy place as it's quite dark and yes, boring at times. With that said, I have to say I did enjoy the show a lot; otherwise, I would have stopped watching it after 2 episodes.

Really looking forward to season 2.

October 18, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterheikoS

I gotta watch this- "Zodiac" was an amazing movie

October 19, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJaragon

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