David Fincher’s ‘Mindhunter’: A Psychologist’s Hopes for the Show


I am excited to hear that David Fincher, who produced and directed Netflix’s hit House of Cards, is bringing Mindhunter—a series about the origins of the FBI’s elite criminal profiling unit—to the streaming service. He and Oscar-winning actor Charlize Theron (Monster, Mad Max: Fury Road) will serve as executive producers.

Fincher and Theron tap impressive directors like Andrew Douglas (The Amityville Horror), Tobias Lindholm (A War), and Oscar-winner Asif Kapadia (Amy).  Fincher directs the first two episodes and the season finale.

In the series, FBI agents played by Jonathan Groff (Glee, Boss) and Holt McCallany (Blue Bloods, CSI: Miami)—spend countless hours interviewing serial killers in order to prevent new murders. Anna Torv (Fringe) plays a psychologist who works with them to understand the killers’ motives and methods.

If anyone can do justice to Mindhunter, David Fincher stands a decent chance. His bona fides in the serial killer suspense genre is well-established.  He’s spent some time in the hearts and minds of serial killers and those who hunt them as producer and director of Zodiac and Se7en. In producing and directing Fight Club, he experimented with a person losing perspective as he becomes completely immersed in an alternative lifestyle. Given the material on which Manhunter is based—and some foreboding quotes from the first trailer—this theme may play out over the course of the series.

While I have hope for the series, I admit that my expectations for Mindhunder are very high. The book on which the series is based—by John Douglas and Mark Olshaker—and the reason I first read it hold a special place in my heart.

In the last semester of my senior year at Drew University, I took Professor Jim O’Kane’s legendary Criminology class.  This was the kind of class you hear about from everyone who’s ever taken it. No one could adequately describe it to you or prepare you for it. You had to experience it yourself and were incredibly lucky if you did.

Prof. O’Kane is a consummate expert and an incredible teacher. His knowledge of crime and theories on its causes is unparalleled. His course took you into courtrooms to see the process from the inside. You had the chance to study crime scene photographs and other evidence with an accomplished medical examiner. Beyond that, Prof. O’Kane is one of the most naturally gifted storytellers I have ever known. Hearing him talk, you felt like you grew up with him in Brooklyn, like you knew the people in the old neighborhood your whole life.

“You felt the inescapable pull to understand society’s role in shaping criminals and their victims.”

Mindhunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit was on the course’s extensive reading list. It is non-fiction but reads more like a novel. John Douglas was one of the first criminal profilers, and the inspiration for characters like Will Graham (William Petersen in Manhunter), Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn in Silence of the Lambs), and Jason Gideon (Mandy Patinkin) and David Rossi (Joe Mantegna) in Criminal Minds.

He and Olshaker have an incredibly compelling way of telling gruesome stories and of talking about what it’s like to be in the mind of a killer without becoming one. Mindhunter and their other books cover famous cases from Douglas’ perspective, giving you a glimpse inside the minds of the perpetrators and into the process of understanding and stopping them. There is no one better at bringing you to the edge of becoming a hunter—carefully considering and selecting his prey, watching, studying, fantasizing about each step in his ritual—before pulling you back from the brink.

Except, maybe, David Fincher.

Just to be sure that my memory didn’t outpace the experience of reading the book, I went back and read it again. Yes, it’s that good. Given these experiences, Mindhunter has a high bar to clear for me. Based on the trailer and the impressive crew behind the series, it might make it.

I am hopeful that the series can tell stories as compelling as John Douglas’ and Jim O’Kane’s.

To be truly successful, the series must accomplish three things. First, it is vital that the series explores the similarities between the criminals and those trying to stop them. How the show deals with that tension will make or break it.

Serial killers are rare.  This is both blessing and curse. You stand only a slim chance of falling victim to one, despite the warning that comes early in the trailer: “You know, there are a lot more like me.”  But rare phenomena are difficult to study. Only painstaking case studies of these bizarre and awful perpetrators will yield any hope of stopping them. Our protectors must become the hunters.

As a line from the trailer puts it, “You want truffles? You gotta get in the dirt with the pigs.”

Second, the series must make you feel unsafe. This is dangerous work, not only to life and limb but also to the agents’ mental health. McCallany’s character asks, “How do you get ahead of crazy if you don’t know how crazy thinks?” The trailer suggests that some might not make it back from the journey into darkness, that they might fall victim to some twisted version of compassion fatigue. That will be some good TV.

“Finally, the show must deal with the pivotal question, “Are criminals born? Or are they formed?”

Like all good TV, it should allow us to examine cultural and societal problems from a safe distance. If killers are born that way, there’s very little we can do about them. If they are not, that means that we bear some responsibility for their existence and their crimes. Either way, they must be stopped. Lives are at stake. And the only thing standing between the killers and us are those willing to risk becoming one.

I hope to be transported back to that room in Brother’s College at Drew. It will be Spring. I will be much younger. I will see and hear stories that terrify, fascinate, and inspire me to better understand the thin margin between hunter and hunted. And how to stay on the right side of that line.

Mindhunter comes to Netflix (appropriately) on Friday, October 13th.

Books by John Douglas and Mark Olshaker are available from Amazon.


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