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.

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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.

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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).

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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?

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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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Family, Madder: Season Two of Bloodline Gets Bigger, Better and Bloodier

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[SPOILERS ahead if you haven’t seen Season One]

If you watched Season One of Bloodline and are thinking of getting your toes wet with the newly released Season Two, here are a few things to know. First, you’re still gonna have to fast-forward through that godwaful opening credit song every episode. Second, the entire season is predicated on the question “what do you want;” apparently the Florida Keys’ answer to Mike Royko’s Chicagoism “Ubi Est Mea?” Third, despite a somewhat-noticeable absence of the two best actors that were on the show (Ben Mendelsohn and Sam Shepard), Season Two is unequivocally much better than the first (a season that without Mendelsohn would have been the textbook definition of “middling”).

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Ben Mendelsohn, the greatest thing since sliced Daniel Day Lewis

Speaking of great acting performances, remember Kevin—the paranoid, skittish cokehead brother from Season One? Turns out Norbert Leo Butz is one hell of an actor. I’m not saying he quite fills Mendelsohn’s shoes, but old boy might just have a forthcoming Emmy to add to his stockpile of Tony awards. Even Kyle Chandlerthe grown-man’s Dean Cain, the political drama stand-in for Matthew Fox, the guy who would leave his second beer half-drank at a holiday barbecuedemonstrates what can only be described as “range” as his patriarchal detective John Rayburn takes on an increasing level of moral ambiguity.

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We need to talk about Kevin…

As for other acting performances, Sissy Spacek is as good as ever and a newly cast John Leguizamo is downright creepy as a sleazy small-time blackmailer. In fact, one of the great achievements of this season is how seamlessly it weaves together a tapestry of ever-growing characters, and does so without dampening the effect of a taut thriller (note to the abomination that was True Detective Season Two). There are at least 20 meaningful roles in this season of Bloodline, few unnecessary, and all somehow intertwined in an ever-grim network of lies, murder and corruption.

To satiate viewers who wonder what happened to some of the better characters killed off in Season One, the series also goes to great length to employ flashback sequences that are a far cry from the distorted, garden-variety fare found in, say, Dexter. And speaking of that other show about murder and lies in South Florida, Season Two of Bloodline is far more heady and compelling than anything Dexter managed in its later seasons (they even stole Detective Batista and made him into the less-slapstick Sherriff Aguirre).

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Not like David Zayas is being typecast or anything…

The main draws for me in Season One were the all-out grimness, Ben Mendelsohn and the fantastic use of the show’s seedy geographic setting. But really… Ben Mendelsohn. Other than that, it wasn’t much more than an above-average crime thriller that tipped its hand way too early. Those original factors still hold ground here (even with Mendelsohn’s diminished presence), but what we also get is a much more sophisticated show. A show that seems to haveunlike the Rayburn clanlearned from its past mistakes.

The writing is better, the narrative is more dynamically advanced, and characters other than Danny are actually given room to act outside of the Season One family archetypes that arguably constrained actors like Chandler and Butz.

I do have one major beef with this season, however. Where the first gave us full resolution (despite telegraphing it to the detriment of that whole “taut thriller” thing), now that the show is established, creators Glenn Kessler, Todd A. Kessler and Daniel Zelman seem to be fine with the more commercially driven formula of leaving us wanting. People might disagree with me on this point, but to them and to the creators I simply say, “Remember The Killing!”

GRADE: A- / B+
IMDb: 8.3 (composite series score)

SEASON ONE RECAP:

-Sam Adams

Fifty Shades of Bleak: The Fall Returns to Netflix Instant

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[NOTE: No big spoilers for Season Two, but refer back to this post if you missed Season One.]

Unfortunately, the above image is not an official promo for the BBC’s steamy Belfast-BTK series The Fall. It’s actually more of an, um, abstract dream collage representation of what Season Two might evoke to viewers. (Gillian Anderson’s character keeps a dream diary, and Jamie Dornan’s does nudie collage scrapbooking, so I don’t think I’m reaching that far.)

In that Season One recommendation, I mentioned that the show was phenomenal, but that it left us with what I most eloquently described as “an asshole of a cliffhanger.”

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“Just gonna drive away in me car with me homely wife and make yeh fuckers wait a few years…”

Without revealing too much, the six new episodes added to Netflix Instant do a nice job of picking up the pieces, albeit at a pace that might inspire some to launch their own killing spree on BBC producers—provided this were a weekly series and not delivered all in one fell swoop. (Recent medical reports show that Netflix is effectively curing ADD through its wonderful full-season-all-at-once template.)

To be fair, the slow build-up doesn’t really come in the form of extraneous plot lines (here’s looking at you, Boardwalk Empire‘s countless hours of Margaret Schroeder fretting over minutiae).

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“The cheeldrin need their day care and I don’t particularly like these flowers and perhaps I’ll go throw a fuss at the dress shop or get tah screwin’ the Irish lad who works for me husband or some such…”

Season Two begins a few weeks down the road from where Season One left off. Paul Spector, AKA “The Belfast Strangler,” (a dreamy, asphyxiation-fetished Jamie Dornan) is still at large. The search quickly hones in on him, and a season-long game of cat and mouse between Spector and investigator Stella Gibson (Gillian Anderson), unfolds.

If you wanted resolution, there’s definitely more here than in Season One. But the show seems to struggle with the main  narrative predicament that The Killing did in its first few seasons (rest assured, this is a much more carefully constructed and fully realized series than what was going down in the Pacific Northwest.)

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A question The Killing took about 12 episodes too many to answer…

That predicament, as I’m sure it has been posed in countless BBC screenwriters’ meetings, is, “When the killer’s caught, what the fuck do we do with this show?”

I’ll leave any speculations on that question in the hands of the viewer. I will say that it’s to the show’s credit how it manages to stay engagingly suspenseful even as Season Two’s narrative meanders along. I should underline that this season of The Fall is much more of a criminal suspense show, and much less of a bloody thriller.

That last note brings up an issue that one could say is either a narrative fault of Season Two or a moral fault of its viewers (present company included). Essentially, it’s simply not as compelling to watch as Season One, and much of that has to do with a lack of, well, murder.

A large degree of this show’s allure comes from the fact that Paul Spector often blurs the antogonist/protagonist line. Don’t get me wrong—he’s a really, really bad guy. But c’mon, his shirtless-prone character often seems less like the BTK Killer and more like the equivalent of Ted Bundy in a Calvin Klein ad.

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Jamie Dornan: Just your prototypical, run-of-the-mill serial killer

The point? As fans of crime shows, we are implicit in wanting to see how much bad guys can get away with. We like it when the body count rises; the deadlier the game, the higher the level of intrigue. And our baddie really does not get away with much at all for the majority of Season Two.

So yeah, I respect The Fall for being a really good crime show that succeeds without pandering to its audiences’ base bloodlust. But the fact remains that we still came to watch a serial killer show. Season Two leaves that desire wanting.

The series seems very aware of this predicament. It even builds it into a dialogue exchange as Gibson watches a video of Spector in the midst of nefarious acts:

Spector, to the camera: “Why the fuck are you watching this? You sick shit. What the fuck is wrong with you?”

Gibson: “Who [are] you talking to? Yourself? Me? People who like to read and watch programs about people like you?”

In a stylistic touch, Gibson appears to be breaking the fourth wall as she asks this question. OK, The Fall—you got us. We are guilty of, uh, being fascinated by your serial killer show.
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But here I am pointing out a lot of faults in what I think is actually one of the most intelligent and compelling series currently filming. So let’s get to some of the pros.

Gillian Anderson, for one, is bar-none one of the best actors working in television. The icy portrayal she gave in Season One becomes more fleshed out here as the show delves into her sexuality, morality and—god forbid—sentimentality. “You can see the world in that way if you want,” she says to a colleague who calls Spector an evil monster. “You know it makes no sense to me. Men like Spector are all too human, too understandable. He’s not a monster. He’s just a man.”

For a character who maintains poise in her profession by playing the one-note, sinister, head-motherfucker-in-charge, Anderson infuses an uncanny dramatic range into the arena of emotional subtlety.

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Give this woman a friggin’ Emmy, already!

As for Dornan, he does a fine job, but the underpinnings of his psyche don’t exactly reach Lecterian heights. He’s either angry or manipulatively heartfelt or vacant—and that’s about his emotional range. It would be nice to see a bit more.

And while we’re on the subject of Dornan, let’s address the handcuffed, spread-eagled elephant in the room. What I’m talking about, of course, is that in less than a month from Season Two debuting, Fifty Shades of Grey will hit theaters.

Let me put the twisted sickness of that in perspective. In The Fall, Dornan plays a man who uses his handsome wiles to gain the trust of women and then bind them with rope and perform erotic choking acts on them. In Fifty Shades… well, I know nothing about Fifty Shades, but I’d imagine he does the same exact thing. Only difference? Christian Grey is a sex symbol that will have women lining up around the block on Valentine’s Day. Paul Spector, on the other hand, is a murderous rapist.

I wonder if Dornan got the part when some Hollywood exec was watching The Fall and thought, “Hey, this guy’s hot and really does the BDSM thing well. Let’s just cast him in a role where he does the same thing without killing his sex partners.” It would kind of be like if Anthony Hopkins had followed up his role of Dr. Lecter by taking Robin Williams’ place in Patch Adams.

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“Would you like a bedtime story, Clareeeece?”

As far as what else keeps The Fall moving, its creator Alan Cubitt altruistically gives several of Season One’s role players much bigger parts. Spector’s 16-year-old worshipper Katie (rather creepily sexed up by the 22-year-old Aisling Franciosi) becomes a key player in Spector’s criminal movements. Her performance and those of other more-seasoned actors are all well played. The only issue is that Anderson and Dornan dominate this show so heavily, it’s difficult for anything that’s not centered on their characters to carry as much intrigue.

All said, despite a slower pace and my nervousness that The Fall could easily go the wayward route of The Killing if it doesn’t figure itself out, it remains perhaps the best current crime series this side of True Detective. Queue it up without further delay.

SEASON TWO GRADE: B+ / A-
IMDb: 8.2

-Sam Adams