If there's a director out there who knows what it takes to capture the essence of a mass murderer, it's David Fincher. His neo-noir crime classic, Seven (1995) focused on a fictionalized evil genius, John Doe (Kevin Spacey), who murdered victims in the style of the seven deadly sins. Years later, Zodiac (2007) depicted a true crime masterpiece that portrayed the investigation into the unidentified, infamous serial killer who terrified California in the '60s and '70s.
This Friday, Fincher's #Mindhunter will be released to #Netflix. Based on the true story of the FBI's Behavioral Science Unit, the binge-ready serial killer feast will do just what its title implies — it'll search the bloody trenches and chilling crevices of the warped minds of prolific murderers and rapists. And, judging from the hideously captivating encounters John E. Douglas describes in his 1996 book, Mind Hunter: Inside The FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit, there's a chance the show will be the best Netflix has produced.
Eager to build anticipation for the show's release, having read Douglas's insightful, articulate, chilling and highly addictive novel (co-written with Mark Olshaker), I rewatched Zodiac. It was a good choice. In many ways, it's the perfect complement to Mindhunter, as the film comes from the angle of an unsolved case, with Fincher filling in the gaps tactfully as he brings the unidentified killer to life in the same way those involved in the case did, by witness reports and crime scene analysis. It also contains many attributes that will translate perfectly to Douglas's story.
Depicting An Authentic Story
Fincher's biggest success with Zodiac is its authenticity. At no point does he glorify the Zodiac killer, or portray him as a cinematic, invincible bad guy. Viewed through the eyes and ears of investigators from the San Francisco Police Department and journalists at the San Francisco Chronicle, the mythology of the killer is chipped away. We begin to understand how his mind works. Although undeniably intelligent and adept at manipulating authorities, Zodiac never errs into the territory of glamorization.
This is a crucial concept that is necessary for Mindhunter. In contrast to Zodiac, the show will approach the psychological intrigue of serial killers from the opposite angle, post-crime, with the offender safely locked behind bars. After beginning work at the FBI in 1970, Douglas learned the tricks of his trade and forged his own path by interviewing high-profile killers who openly discussed their gruesome crimes. He then used those insights to create eerily accurate criminal profiles to solve cases, changing the FBI's strategy in the process.
Like the Zodiac's uncanny ability to avoid detection, Douglas wasn't using black magic to find the bad guys. His approach was methodical and meticulous, using a mixture of behavioural traits and evidence from the crime scene. He'd enter a "trance" allowing him to focus on placing himself in the shoes of killer and victim. In his recollection, he humanizes the killers, highlighting that while their behavior is beyond pure evil, some still have redeemable qualities. For example, he admits Ed Kemper — a six-foot-nine brute of a man who murdered several women during a killing spree in the early '70s — was intelligent and charming.
Stunning Cinematography And Alluring Characters
Although dealing with an ugly subject, Zodiac is beautiful. Some of the shots, from tracking vehicles as they amble through San Francisco, to capturing the feel of the time, all add to the film's authenticity. Events run from the Zodiac's first murder in 1969, all the way to 1983. There's a narrative overlap with Mindhunter, which is set in the early '70s. Judging from the cinematography, Fincher will again find the beauty within the grey walls of interrogation.
Though the focus of Mindhunter will be interrogation, Zodiac is a shining example of how to make information-heavy storylines captivating, taking streams of case files, interviews and evidence and transforming them into a crime thriller. That process is helped by strong characterization. At the center of the case are the San Francisco Chronicle crime reporter, Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.) and cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), who develop an obsession with tracking the identity of the killer. Their search is intertwined with the investigation of SFPD's inspectors, David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and William Armstrong (Anthony Edwards).
Each of these characters is based on real life counterparts, fully fleshed out. They encapsulate the frustration and obsession that the case had on many. Fincher proves he has the knack in keeping the characters authentic, but making them compelling on screen. They are the story, there's no need to be gratuitous in depicting the murder because of them. Their actions and inner struggle build tension.
Can 'Mindhunter' Be Even Better?
Although Zodiac runs at almost three hours, Mindhunter has the added luxury of an entire season to develop and unfold, allowing room to go even deeper into the intricate details. Considering the source material, this is crucial. Douglas would spend hours upon hours interviewing subjects, and goes into great depths of the things he discovered. To do justice to the story, the show needs to give the full selection of facts.
While Mindhunter won't feature Douglas or his partner Robert K. Ressler per se, the leading duo of Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) and Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) are based on the real thing. Fincher has said that the Netflix show gravitates around conversation. Away from blood and gore, it's the nuance of communication, the tells, the body language, the looks, the glances, the patterns of behavior that all help to build a gripping narrative.
If Fincher can apply the elements of Zodiac to Mindhunter, it's doesn't take an FBI behavioral scientist to tell you this'll be one not to miss.
Will you be binging Mindhunter when it arrives to Netflix on Friday?