True crime is one of those genres that has evolved significantly since it gained popularity in the 1990s. A superficial fascination with violent crime has morphed over time into a fascination with the person who did it. One of the problems that has always plagued the validity of giving serial killers detailed coverage in documentaries is that it often feels pointless, and we as viewers can’t help but feel icky by the time the credits roll. That is why “Mindhunter” offers fans of true crime a refreshing change of pace by presenting a nuanced perspective on the motives of a violent individual without forcing it’s viewers to empathize with deviancy.
The Netflix series follows FBI agents Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) and Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) as they aim to learn more about the behavior of a serial killer but are met with a wall of skepticism from those who believe violent individuals are simply born that way, a widely accepted belief in 1970s America. Their research eventually gains steam and is legitimized with the assistance of Wendy Carr (Anna Torv), a renowned psychologist who aids them in launching a research project aimed at interviewing imprisoned serial killers. What follows is a series of character studies, each taking place in the typical environment of a dimly lit room perfectly suited for interrogation, yet the conversations taking place often take harrowing turns and build up a sense of dreadful mystery.
The team seeks something that goes beyond simply understanding a killer’s motivations, and in the process, offers a subtle warning against reducing someone’s aberrant behavior. Although Agent Holden’s optimism erodes with every interview he conducts, he is still willing to do the dirty work of “hearing out” a serial killer if it means getting information. Agent Tench struggles with the idea of empathizing with a killer, even under false pretenses, while Dr. Carr works to keep their research grounded in methodology and steps in to conduct the interviews after Ford and Tench are called on to assist in murders that are taking place in Atlanta.
The most impressive aspect about this series is that some of it’s most jarring moments are conveyed through spoken word. After getting a sense of the morbidity being talked about, we become more intensely drawn to what is going on. Ed Kemper (Cameron Britton), who is surprisingly cordial and even helpful to the investigation, becomes gradually imposing, creating a power struggle with agent Ford’s attempts to divulge information. The series contains its fair share of shocking revelations, but the generous pacing of the series allows us to process these revelations without feeling emotionally out of touch.
The theme of righteousness is presented as an idea that creates a massive burden, especially in the context of homicidal investigations. We know and understand that an individual who commits murder deserves some form of punishment, and when the only way to prevent gruesome crimes from happening is by understanding the mind of a killer, and the series does a great job of getting us to more fully understand that crime cannot be relegated to “falling through the cracks.” We find evidence to support the idea that criminality is, more often than not, a response to a broken society that prioritizes incarceration over rehabilitation.
Agent Ford is initially conveyed to us as idealistic, stoic in his approach and determined to do good. He prefers a “no body bags” approach instead of the FBI’s complacency with minimal casualties. As he confronts the reality of how perverse the human being can be, his stoicism is visibly degraded. It is through his optimism that many of us can relate and through his adamance for simply listening instead of dominating. By the same token, we are manipulated into thinking that will be enough to get someone to open up, and it just might. But the baggage we find along the way can be enough to overwhelm our desire to help.
If you enjoy true crime that is nuanced and offers perspective without the gratuitous violence, this expertly crafted series might just suit those needs. It’s shot in a wide lense, which gives the series a cinematic feel to it, and the looming sense of anxiety is perfectly accompanied by a harrowing soundtrack. It’s an all around well put together series with a captivating narrative that is portrayed through conflicted characters and a stunning performance by Cameron Britton. Even for casual fans of the genre, this series is a must-see character study that actually brings something to the table when it comes to the topic of true crime.