Boxset Monday: Mindhunter (season 1) (Netflix)

If David Fincher had directed Manhunter


Serial killers have been such a part of modern culture (and life) for so long, it’s hard to remember that we weren’t always aware of them or even that we never always used to call them ‘serial killers’. There were, of course, the Manson murders and Son of Sam killings, but the point at which we really started to feature them in popular culture can be traced back – more or less – to one man: Thomas Harris. It was his book and the subsequent movie Silence of the Lambs that introduced the world to Hannibal Lecter and the fictional serial killer.

Silence of the Lambs was actually Harris’ third book, the first being Black Sunday, which was about terrorism and was itself turned into a movie. To research it, Harris visited the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit in Quantico, where he learnt about serial killers and how the FBI was trying to catch them. It was this research that formed the basis of both Silence of the Lambs and his second book, Red Dragon, which was filmed as Manhunter.


Manhunter sees former FBI adviser Will Graham (William Petersen) brought back from medical leave to apprehend a serial killer known as ‘the Tooth Fairy’. However, he can only do this by adopting the mindset of a serial killer, something he does by visiting one of the killers he caught and who invalided him out of the profession: Hannibal Lecter.

The movie was heavily auteured by the then Miami Vice supremo Michael Mann, and reflects many of his then obsessions, ranging from the fashions and MTV-friendly soundtrack through to its love of police procedure. But it’s its superb cinematography, the central performances (particularly Brian Cox as Lecter) and the film’s mimesis that ensure it remains to this day my favourite film.

Manhunter is less well known than Silence of the Lambs, but it is arguably as important since it was the first movie to detail three things:

  • The importance of scientific forensics in capturing criminals
  • The idea of psychologically profiling serial killers – working out how they think in order to capture them
  • The idea that thinking like a criminal can ultimately make you just like them

The first gave us the likes of CSI (also starring Petersen), the second Profiler, Millennium et al, the last Luther and its ilk.


The serial killer craze is still with us, of course, but it arguably reached its zenith in terms of popularity and quality with Se7en, a modern film classic and the movie directorial debut of David Fincher, who would go on to direct Fight Club, The Game, The Social Network and other greats. He’s one of my favourite film directors and Se7en is my second favourite film.

As auteured as ManhunterSe7en obviously has many things in common with its predecessor, but its biggest difference is its direction and cinematography. Fincher’s meticulously precise, calculated direction is the opposite of Mann’s flash. Everything moves at a slow measured pace, with minimal action, whereas Manhunter has frequent moments of adrenalin-rushing excitement. Mann (with the help of cinematographer Dante Spinotti) is all pastels and primary colours; Fincher’s love of black meant that he actually worked with cinematographer Darius Khondji to create a ‘silver retention‘ print of the movie to emphasis different levels of shade.

The two movies are both very similar yet hugely different.

And now, Mindhunter

As well as his movies, Fincher can also be credited with another important contribution to popular culture: the transformation of Netflix from a simple DVD library and streaming service into a prestige online TV network. For it was he who exec produced and largely directed the first season of House of Cards, Netflix’s debut in original programming. Had it been directed by a lesser person, it’s likely that Netflix would be thought of in very different ways right now and might not be anything like as successful.

Now for his latest Netflix project we have the answer to a question I never thought would ever be answered: what would have happened if the man who directed my second favourite film had directed my favourite film, too? Because we now have Mindhunter.

Yes, that was Mindhunter. Pay attention.

Yes, Mindhunter

Mindhunter is an adaptation by Joe Penhall (The Road, Moses Jones) of Mind Hunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit, written by John E Douglas and Mark Olshaker, which details the creation of the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit. Based on real people and events, it’s a period piece initially set in the 1970s, when the FBI was populated by fusty ‘accountants and lawyers’, women were only just being allowed to be agents, and there was still a list of ‘bad words’ that couldn’t be used in front of them.

Entering that mix is idealistic special agent and hostage negotiations expert Jonathan Groff (Boss, Looking, Glee). He’s fascinated by the changing nature of crime and wants to work out how the FBI can catch the likes of Son of Sam, or even prevent such killers from ever striking through understanding their psychology. He soon bumps into sociology student Hannah Gross at a bar, where she mocks him for not knowing the basics of labelling theory. Before you know it, he’s going back to school to learn the latest in criminology theory.

Then he meets fellow FBI instructor, the like-minded Holt McCallany (CSI: Miami), whose Behavioral Science Unit has been looking at just what Groff is interested in. Groff wants in, but McCallany only wants him to lighten the workload as he goes around the country teaching beat cops the latest FBI techniques.

Nevertheless, together, they come up with a cunning plan: interview the ‘sequence killers’ already behind bars to find out what motivated them. They can then use psychological theory to categorise them and deduce from the evidence the kinds of people they might be, and so catch them. Soon, they’re looking for help from a real expert in the field, Anna Torv (Fringe, Secret City), who guides them in how to make their study scientifically valid. Before you know it , they’re getting huge amounts of funding, moving out of their basement in Quantico and applying their theories to live crimes. They even come up with a better term for the new breed of criminal: ‘a serial killer’.

But how will dealing with these men affect them, how safe will they be and what will the FBI of Hoover make of it all?

Portrait of a serial killer

Mindhunter is best thought of as a prequel. It’s almost a prequel to Manhunter and Silence of the Lambs, and if you know those well, you’ll spot where Harris might have borrowed from reality or Mindhunter may have borrowed from Harris. 

But it’s predominantly a prequel to its own second season, which got the green light back in April, because as it stands, it’s basically 10 episodes of chatting with monsters about their mental problems, interspersed with the occasional piece of policework, all while the straight-laced Groff becomes a darker version of himself who breaks the rules, covers up misdeeds and begins to think thoughts he shouldn’t.

There’s not even hints this was intended to be a single-season story. Episode 10 ends on a cliffhanger, but is itself basically the highlights of both Manhunter and Silence of the Lambs; meanwhile, pretty much every episode features an unnamed killer off doing something somewhere, but we never get as far as knowing what and he never attracts the attention of the Behavioral Crime Unit.

Combined with its next season, Mindhunter may eventually be seen as a true classic of prestige television; on its own, the first season is more like a drama-documentary with excellent production values, in which we learn how psychological profiling might have evolved.

Importantly on this score, it’s not a documentary. We do get to meet at least one real serial killer, Edmund Emil Kemper III, who is majestically played by Cameron Britton (Stitchers) and who serves as the Hannibal Lecter of the piece, offering scary insights into his own mind that begin to affect Groff. But incidents involving him are changed significantly in location and wording, particularly those in the final episode. More importantly, Groff, McCallany and Torv all play characters modelled on real people, but aren’t the real John E Douglas, Robert K Ressler and Dr Ann Wolbert Burgess respectively.

To me, that robs the show a little of its potential power and turns it into something that would simply like to be Manhunter, rather than something with aspirations to real education as well as drama.

Interview with a monster

Format to one side, the show despite its chattiness and lack of gore is nonetheless gripping. Groff’s gee shucks g-man is an interesting study in how touching evil can corrupt and how certainty, power and a lack of scrutiny can be a bad combination. Groff’s journey sees him going from being a pleasant hostage negotiator and teacher to a man who’s best friends with misogynistic serial killers and sure enough of his own science that he’s willing to destroy a potentially innocent man’s career and life to stop him from ‘escalating’ into a paedophile. (Hannibal fans can possibly guess at alternative reasons for these changes, as can anyone who knows a bit about Douglas, as Hannibal borrowed a little from Douglas’ life story – something episode 10 also intimates at.)

McCallany’s less showy, more solid role highlights an actor with great potential who was clearly slumming it on CSI: Miami, while Torv’s academia-bucking pioneer is the surprising stickler who demands study protocols be followed at all times if the science is to have validity. It’s Groff’s character who changes the script because he knows he has to be trusted by his interviewees, but his only way of doing it is to become friends with them by suggesting he thinks just like them. Torv? Not a huge amount to do, but given we’ve not had any interviews with female killers yet (would-be presidential assassins Lynette Fromme and Sara Jane Moore were both part of the study), I’m betting she’ll have more to do next season.

Over the course of this first season, though, Groff and McCallany go from not having the faintest clue as to what might have motivated a killer, to being able to spot the man they’re after simply from the cut of some nearby trees (if that sounds familiar, you probably know Manhunter as well as I do). When they start applying their knowledge, the show becomes fascinating. The interrogation scenes are electric, as are the witness interviews, whether with a criminal or not.

Not that different

Fincher’s directorial style imbues all the episodes, even though he directs only four of them. But his cold, clinical detail and delight in having actors sitting around chatting permeate almost every scene and is distinctly creepy and dehumanising. The opening title sequence to every episode is also a clinical inversion of Se7en‘s justifiably famous opening titles.

It’s worth noting, though, that apart from Fincher’s directorial style, the performances and the show’s overall chattiness, it’s not hugely different from just about anything you might see on CBS. It’s largely the period settings and the production values that lift this from being a simple procedural to something far more stimulating. The little sprinklings of history help, too, but with so many changes to reality, you can’t really leave the show saying you’ve learnt much beyond how the Behavioral Science Unit developed its ontologies and terminology.

Mindhunter is a good, smart show that looks brilliant and is definitely worth your time if you have any vague kind of interest in the subject matter. But I still prefer Michael Mann’s version of this story over Fincher’s. Now I just have to know what Michael Mann’s Se7en would be like.