Netflix’s new crime drama TV series “Mindhunter” offers a riveting look inside the FBI’s efforts to track down the worst serial killers of our generation. The action takes place in 1977, at a time when legendary killers such as John Wayne Gacey and Charles Manson were already household names. What makes this David Fincher-directed Netflix Original so gripping is that it is based on real-life events inside the FBI’s elite serial crime unit.
“Mindhunter” will remind you of “Hannibal” and “Silence of the Lambs”
The main protagonist in the Netflix show is FBI agent Holden Ford (played by Jonathan Groff), who is based on real-life FBI agent John E. Douglas. It was Douglas, back in the mid-1970s, who helped to set up the FBI’s serial crime unit and who came up with the idea of interviewing incarcerated serial killers to find out more about their methodology and way of thinking.
While many viewers might not recognize the name John E. Douglas, it was exactly this legendary FBI crime fighter who became the inspiration for Jack Crawford in “Hannibal” and Will Graham in “Red Dragon” and “The Silence of the Lambs.” Thus, if you’re a “Silence of the Lambs” fan, it’s hard not to be drawn into the world of Netflix’s “Mindhunter.” This is a real psychological thriller.
“Mindhunter” is based on real-life serial killers
Set in 1977, this Netflix show starts with the “Summer of Sam,” when the serial murderer Son of Sam was out on the loose in New York City and captivating the nation. And, from there, the show goes on to reference or detail a number of the nation’s worst-ever serial killers in recent memory, including John Wayne Gacey, Charles Manson, Ed Kemper and Richard Speck. Another legendary serial killer, the BTK “Bind Torture Kill” killer (who becomes a subject of the final episode of the first season), is mentioned and alluded to throughout.
It is Ed Kemper – the so-called “Co-Ed Killer” – who is much of the focus of “Mindhunter.” The character Holden Ford must go toe-to-toe with Ed Kemper, trying to figure out what would activate him to abduct and kill young girls and then have sex with them once they are dead. Ford must go into all the grisly and unseemly details of these horrendous crimes in order to find out how these criminals think. He tries to find out their habits, the ways they try to cover up murders, and how they choose their victims.
“Mindhunter” peers into America’s obsession with serial killers
For over 40 years, America has been fascinated with these real-life serial killers. Who hasn’t heard of Charles Manson or John Wayne Gacey? These are names and identities that routinely made their way onto the front pages of tabloid
newspapers everywhere. What “Mindhunter” does is peer inside this dark obsession, trying to figure out not just how these killers think, but why they are objects of such dark fascination for Americans. It is, perhaps, because we see a dark, twisted piece of ourselves in them.
If you think about recent TV shows and movies about serial killers – including “Hannibal” and “Dexter” – they have sought to portray serial killers as being complicated antiheroes. They usually have some dark motive to justify their actions, and they are often incredibly intelligent. In the case of “Hannibal,” here was a legendary criminal who was more than the intellectual equal of any police investigator. Unlike typical killers, he had very urbane, refined tastes.
“Mindhunter” explores the psychological dimensions of serial murderers
From the perspective of criminal investigation, there are a number of very important issues raised by “Mindhunter,” such as, “Are serial murderers formed or born?” The scary thought is that they might be more people capable of carrying out these grisly murders than we might suppose. As Ed Kemper taunts FBI agent Holden Ford, “You know, there are a lot like me” out there.
And that’s what makes this Netflix show so fascinating: it delves deep into the psychological motivations of these killers – and show us how police investigators are more similar to them than we want to admit. As Holden Ford tells his skeptical peers at the FBI when he tells them of his plan to create a brand-new unit dedicated to finding these serial killers, “You want truffles? … You got to get in the dirt with the pigs.”
Netflix’s “Mindhunter” shows us the formation of an elite FBI unit
Another main character in “Mindhunter” is FBI agent Bill Tench (played by Holt McCallany), who is based on another real-life FBI agent, Robert Ressler, who coined the term “serial killer” to describe these psychotic killers who are out on the loose with plans to murder victim after victim. And there is also Dr. Wendy Carr (played by Anna Torv) who helps the serial crime unit in order to help investigate these criminals.
With these dynamic, well-developed characters, director David Fincher is able to show us the origin story of the FBI’s elite serial crime unit. We see how it was formed, why it was formed, and the types of issues that it had to confront at the outset. Back in the mid-1970s, the concept of the “serial killer” was still very new. To give the show even more veracity, Fincher based the dialogue, in large part, directly on prison interviews involving Ford and Tench. Thus, we are hearing the exact words spoken from 40 years ago.
Netflix’s “Mindhunter” takes us even deeper into David Fincher’s twisted world
All of us probably have a favorite David Fincher movie (such as “Fight Club” or “Seven”), and here we see the master filmmaker at work. It starts with a bleak color palette and a washed-out look for a dreary looking 1970s. From there, he steadily adds elements of a very violent imagination, and then supports it all with the little rituals and patterns that are part of this dark, corrupted world. The show is most fascinating when we sense Ford and Tench giving themselves over to this dark world, unable to resist the dark and demented details their subjects provide.
All in all, Netflix’s “Mindhunter” is imminently binge-worthy material. Just as “Hannibal” left you wanting to know more about Hannibal Lecter, “Mindhunter” will leave you wanting to know more about this generation’s most legendary serial killers. With the skillful cinematic direction of David Fincher, it’s easy to why “Mindhunter” has a 96% freshness score on Rotten Tomatoes. This is not just a great Netflix Original – it is also compelling TV perfect for your next Netflix binge.