The Fincherian Copycat: Netflix’s Mindhunter channels all things Zodiac

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For fans of serial killer cinema rooted in true crime, it’s not much of a stretch to say that David Fincher’s Zodiac is the modern-day gold standard. Fincher, a pioneer of both music videos and digital filmmaking, crafted scenes, moments, and frames that were at once sublimely enchanting and forebodingly ominousconvincingly turning the innocence of the freewheeling late-60s Bay Area into the tapestry of murderous havoc and foggy mystery that the film’s namesake created during his bloody reign of terror.

And while I thought Fincher’s Gone Girl was massively less inventive from a narrative standpoint (blame author Gillian Flynn), it and Zodiac shared an undeniably singular aesthetic. If I were a snooty film professor, I’d probably call this… “Fincherian.” This comes through in the director’s insistence on painstakingly calculated camerawork, trademarked by sweeping, panningand often surreallow-light shots that makes many of his frames look like Gregory Crewdson stills.

gregory crewdson photograph

A photograph by Gregory Crewdson… or what it feels like to be in David Fincher’s mind.

Fincher’s encyclopedic rock knowledge, used as pointedly and effectively as audiovisual masters like Tarantino and Scorsese, also doesn’t hurt (example A: The “Hurdy Gurdy Man” scene).

OK, that’s enough Fincher ass-kissing (I’ll point out that while he helmed Se7en, Fight Club and Panic Room, Zodiac is his only film I’m really nuts about).

The point is that, in many ways, Netflix’s Mindhunter feels like a follow-up to Fincher’s 2007 mystery-thriller surrounding the Zodiac Killer. This is apparent even in its opening scenebefore the credits introduce, you guessed it, Fincher as an executive producer (he’s also a director of four of the first season’s 10 episodes).

And much like the point-by-point casefile and eyewitness bent toward true-crime upon which Zodiac was founded, Mindhunter also does its homework. Its account of the onset of criminal psychological profiling by John E. Douglas, Robert Ressler and Dr. Ann Burgess (with pseudonyms in the show), plays closely to the script of Mind Hunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit, co-authored by Douglas.

Michael Rooker henry lee lucas serial killer true crime movies

Speaking of great true crime cinema, check out Michael Rooker as Henry Lee Lucas in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (Amazon Prime)

After leaving off on one of the most baffling and psychologically fascinating serial murder cases in history, it’s fitting that Fincher would pick up a story that, circuitously, started where Zodiac left off (i.e., when you can’t track down a serial killer, how do you track down his mind?). The fact that Mindhunter is adapted by Joe Penhall lends the project even more grim potential (Penhall adapted Cormac McCarthy’s The Road).

the road movie cormac mccarthy viggo mortensen

Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee in The Road: a feel-good father-and-son tale about foraging for treasures in the woods.

So yes, Mindhunter has a decidedly “Fincherian” aspect to it that should appeal to fans of Zodiac. That said, I’m not hailing it as the second-coming.

But before I get into criticism, I should probably give a little premise-oriented background.

Jonathan Groff plays the lead as Holden Ford (AKA John E. Douglas), a bright-eyed upstart federale who gets taken out of the field after semi-successfully dealing with a bloody hostage negotatiation. Shortly after, he meets up with a grizzled veteran Behavioral Science agent named Bill Tench (Holt McCallany as Robert Ressler, in the series’ most dynamic and enjoyable performance). As they go around the country lecturing small-town cops on FBI techniques, Ford makes it clear that he has much loftier ambitions than status-quo educational seminars. He’s a guy who wants to change things. And he won’t be stopped.

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Groff and McCallany: The He-Men G-Men.

Ford starts by visiting maximum security prisons to interview serial killers, something Tench begrudgingly becomes an accomplice in. As their insights into the most warped criminal minds start developing patterns that lead to results in the field, they’re joined by an East Coast professor, Dr. Wendy Carr (Anna Torv playing Ann Burgess), who believes in the scope of Ford’s organically manifesting mission from God.

The series is at its best when it depicts conversation with deviant psycho killers like Edmund Kemper (the scene-stealing Cameron Britton, a seemingly gentle giant who also brutally killed his family and several young women) and Richard Speck. A twisted dynamic that begins to shine light on Douglas and Ressler’s revolutionary work comes through here, likely enhanced by parts of this dialogue coming from actual recorded conversations with the real-life killers.

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Cameron “Fat Paul Dano” Britton slays as Big Ed Kemper.

The subsequent application of Ford and Tench’s findings to cases involving sadistic murderers gives an already taught series that edge-of-your-seat thriller appeal. Simply put, it’s where the series bridges its procedural narrative with the reason we go the movies. And it works flawlessly.

Unfortunately, Mindhunter loses traction as it veers away from being a traveling case study on infamous serial killers and goes more into petty, bureaucratic FBI conflicts and relationship subplots. While the leads are very well fleshed-out characters as one would expect from Fincher, rigidly stereotyped performances from a bureaucratic FBI chief and a bumbling, deceitful assistant agent sidetrack the show into dull conflict, seemingly designed for the sole purpose of keeping our ace agents in a David vs. Goliath pigeonhole. And then Wendy Carr spends half an episode trying make friends with a stray cat. And episode 8in which a pervy high school teacher gets in trouble and Ford has girlfriend problemsis 50 utterly wasted minutes.

One of Season One’s most interesting threads is found in many of its episodes opening with mysterious glimpses into the life of a man who looks to be Season Two’s next villain. Why not flesh that out a little more to replace the minutiae?

groff mind hunter out

Jonathan Groff: Just your run-of-the-mill FBI agent working to crack the  D.E.N.N.I.S. System.

As for Groff’s lead turn, I’d say the jury’s still out. While my wife informs me he got famous by simulating on-stage sex with Lea Michele on Broadway and starring in HBO’s Looking, I’m fairly sure Groff is actually a rebranded Glenn Howerton (Dennis Reynolds from Always Sunny). Either way, I can’t figure out if he’s trying to play a sociopath interviewing psychopaths, or if sociopathy is just an affectation of Groff/Howerton. His character and performance are just a bit stilted. But perhaps the series is going somewhere with that.

Mindhunter clearly has some of the better hallmarks of Fincher’s workcinematographically, audiovisually, in terms of character development, and in its demented, mystifying intrigue. It just needs to make up its mind where it wants to go. Hopefully, Season Two will remedy that. In the meantime, it’s definitely a “must-watch” for Zodiac and Fincher fans.

IMDb: 8.9
GRADE: B+

-Sam Adams

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4 thoughts on “The Fincherian Copycat: Netflix’s Mindhunter channels all things Zodiac

  1. torchlight

    Zodiac, what more can one say about the cinematic equilavant of the ‘Mona Lisa’ reimagined by Escher.

    A puzzle within a puzzle within a puzzle.

    I always feel like the murders and the murderer are the outside walls of the maze, necessary but only to give substance to the paths into the center. Zodiac’s brilliance for me, lies in Robert Downeys obsession with something that he knows is there but like the mythical yeti, magic bullet or nessie can only catch at fleeting glimpses of or half truth witness statements to justify his descent into the rabbit hole.

    And yet we applaud Jake G’s (tablet word search didn’t understand gillinhyuals) character for boldly diving head first into the same pit of madness, I don’t want him to go mad in pursuit of this phantom who may or may not even be a thing, even when he visits Bob on the boat, I want him to ‘save’ his colleague, accomplice, man at arms and say ‘Bob this Zodiac thing, ya know slightly out of hand now, let’s give it a rest and go bowling.’

    And that’s what makes the ending in the film akin to perfection. Sure we are curious, but we want to know that sometimes we are not crazy mad buffoons, and that half caught glance was perhaps something more than a log floating in the Loch or a distant shadow from behind a tree.

    There was no catching of the Zodiac we know this at the start, but we want Jake G to find something tangible to save himself but most of all for him to save Bob and he can crawl off that crazy train at the next station knowing that he glimpsed something terrible that no one believed he had seen.

    As a by the by Finchers digging into the Zodiac mythos went as far as planting trees by the waters edge at the lake so the scene looked like the photos in files they released to him pre-filming.

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      • So, Im’ not sure what else to say on the subject of Fincher. Trying to encapsulate quintessential Fincher into a graph or two is obviously a fool’s errand, but I also am not sure how you could really appreciate this series without recognizing the profundity his work is capable of.

        I like that you bring up Downey and ol’ Jake G–man, those were two fantastic fucking performances! And not only was each actor remarkable but… the houseboat scene… show me a director who could do that better and I’ll show you how to squeeze water out of a rock.

        Seeing as we tend to meander in these sections–and apropos of gillinhyuals—what are your thoughts on Prisoners? That movie blew me the fuck away. I recall Zodiac not being a massive hit at the time. I also know it has this fiendish cult following. Sure, that has to do with a mainstream serial-killer fetish, but… point is that I think a lot of folks slept on Prisoners, and it could be a film that gains some way-past-due traction.

        Seeing as I’m getting tangential, Dennis Villeneuve? This is probably criminal, but I don’t think I’ve watched Incendies. I thought Arrival and Sicario were both slightly above average Oscar bait. Enemy had some fun but ultimately uninventive psychological interplay that was made up by the greatness that is Jake G (man, I’m just realizing that I really respect this feller as an actor).

        I’ll end with my usual update. Been watching Les Revenants (the original French version of The Returned). Into it so far after a season and a half but it could also go the wayward route of Lost or Kettering Incident (great performances and setting, extremely ambitious plot that feels destined to fail). Late to the game on this one but halfway into Fargo SE3 and it’s the first time I’ve thought Ewan McG was good in anything. This new Netflix series Alias Grace (while not typically my cup o tea) is quite good through its first 4 of six episodes. And lastly, as someone who’s gotten a bit sick and tired of Tarantino impersonating Tarantino, I enjoyed the shit out of The Hateful Eight. That’s what I got for now.

        Cheerio, mate.

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  2. torchlight

    Hey there Mr El Gringo Adams, glad that the world of cinema is serving you well and that you are well.

    I swapped out tablet for keyboard so this might be a ‘War and Peace’ length post. Fun Fact: Back in the day when the world was young and Weinstein and Trump were only mostersatthestartofdreams. My mother convinced my Father that going to see ‘War and Peace’ at the local fleapit was a good saturday night excursion. It was shown over two nights and on entry the cloak room guy tore the two tickets in half and said ‘Keep that it gets you in next week for part two.’ Imagine the excitement of keeping half a ticket safe in this age of mobile tickets, electronic devices and charging you twice.

    In true Tarantino fashion I start at the end and work back. There is no other way of saying this but I am a Tarantino fan. Hateful Eight was a great film, it’s stolen again, it is just Agatha Christie with a Tarantino twist, a who-will-shoot-who with blood and swearing, but by christ he knocks it straight outta the park. It had me by the (8-) balls from the moment they started talking in the carriage. Sometimes you just get that feeling about a movie. At least a solid 8 from me.

    Ahhhh, Ewan McG, an anchovy actor either love him or hate him. I tried with Fargo but I was a huge fan of the film and didn’t really get the series.

    I tried with Returned, I lost interest about 4 or 5 in, truth be told the smart box probably forgot to tape one and I couldn’t be bothered.

    Ahhhhh Sicario, I sat through it, somehow, it was no popcorn flick that was for sure. I didn’t get it at all, it was way over my head. Arrival we enjoyed, a light hearted alien romp.

    Did you ever check out ‘Desierto’? A fun filled picnic trip out to the desert to do some critter spotting.

    What did you think of ‘Nightcrawler’?

    ‘Prisoners’…… They have made seven Saw movies just trying over and over for that one really great moment where the cogs in your head make the connection and almost unconsciously you mouth the words ‘ohhh fuuuuuck’. Prisoners managed that with just one movie. Disturbing and twisted, it reminded me of Denis Lehanes ‘Gone Baby Gone’ but in a better way.

    And so back to ‘Zodiac’. For as long as I could read, mysteries, conspiracies and unsolved shit floated my boat, and the best of those are Nessie (not enough food for a monsterattheendofthefoodchain to exist), The Oak Island mystery (weird hidden shit lost in the myths of time), Yeti (the footprints, the buddhists, Lara Croft) and Zodiac.

    If I know something of the source material I normally spend the film thinking, that never happened, that’s not right. With Zodiac that didn’t happen. Its like watching a documentary where I will be the only person to ever watch it. It’s like the news man, they are speaking to you, directly to you, and only to you. And somehow Fincher pulls off this docu-drama-fictionalization three card monte trick with such aplomb you don’t care that you know that the magician will say abracadabra and the rabbit will appear and that it will appear from the hat and that it will swap places with the assistant behind a curtain.

    We know there is no Zodiac, perhaps this time with a bit of luck and a following wind, maybe just maybe……………….

    Like

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