By Ronak Gupta Aug. 27, 2019
Eliciting discomfort from viewers is an art that David Fincher has mastered over his decorated film career. With Mindhunter, a true-crime show on serial killers, he uses this art to swap gratuitous violence and gore with conversations about it. The result is horrifying and suspenseful in equal measure.
The opening credits of David Fincher’s Mindhunter, the true-crime series that is now streaming on Netflix, are as unsettling as the series itself. We see close-ups of a tape recorder – the instrument of inquiry used throughout; sombre music plays in the background; a couple of seconds in, an image comes and goes in a flurry and then similar images appear in an ephemeral blur. We can’t quite figure out properly what these images contain. We don’t need to. Our mind registers small details and joins the dots for us: a bloody hand here, deep skin gashes there. Bit by bit, we form the complete image of a rotting corpse.
That we don’t see any image for more than a fraction of a second, but still see it, can feel impossibly uncomfortable. But then, eliciting discomfort from viewers is an art that Fincher has mastered over his decorated film career. Unlike House of Cards, the other big Netflix TV series that he was involved in, this time around, Fincher takes up a chunk of directing duties (he directs the first three of the second season’s nine episodes and directed four episodes in the debut season) and leaves his fingerprints on the whole series. The result is a show that swaps gratuitous violence and gore with conversations about it. The result is horrifying and suspenseful in equal measure.
Mindhunter charts the evolution of a unit of the FBI that specialises in profiling criminals that have committed multiple murders, aka serial killers. Based on the lives of real special agents, the reel version condenses several such investigators into two principal characters: Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) and Bill Tench (Holt McCallany). We follow Holden and Bill as they travel across the US, talking to convicted serial killers and analysing transcripts to better understand the mechanics of minds they believe are designed to crave killing. This basic premise slots right into Fincher’s wheelhouse.
Mindhunter charts the evolution of a unit of the FBI that specialises in profiling criminals that have committed multiple murders, aka serial killers. Netflix
Mindhunter charts the evolution of a unit of the FBI that specialises in profiling criminals that have committed multiple murders, aka serial killers.
With Se7en, Zodiac, and Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Fincher has proved himself to be one of the best genre filmmakers in the last two decades. His specific visual style that lends itself effortlessly to movies about broken minds and broken people, is distinguishable by a colour palette that is marked by undersaturated images. In Mindhunter, this not only enhances the period aspect of the show – it is set in the 1970s – but also adorns it with a gritty moodiness in line with the oppressive atmosphere. Fincher almost religiously abhors bright lighting, opting instead for dull colours from one end of the colour spectrum or two opposite ones. This tendency is often visible in scenes that are set inside prisons, which are filled with cool colours like blue, the mood further aided by a dash of warm orange coming from the outside. By playing with lighting and colour in this manner, Fincher almost always amplifies subtle characteristics: In Mindhunter, he highlights the lonely and singular nature of an interrogation scene.
For a show that relies almost unhealthily on just people conversing, the lack of action can be an obvious impediment. Fincher triumphs over this by making simple conversations cinematic. In fact, this is a pattern in his filmography, littered with scenes that are gripping, not because so much is happening, but because so little is. Think of the bar scene in Social Network, where Mark Zuckerberg is dumped by his girlfriend, for instance. He brings this a similar flourish in Mindhunter, ratcheting up tension from just dialogue, excellently depicted in a scene from the second season. In it, two officers in the front seats of a car are trying to get details of a violent crime from an unhinged survivor – a man seated in the backseat of the car. We never see the face of the survivor; it’s always out of focus. The detectives don’t either and yet conversation continues as the survivor recounts the grisly crime. Something that resembles the rumbling sound of a train over a bridge is the only thing we can hear in the background, soundtracking the silences of this interrogation. That through the scene, we only rely on the reactions of the detectives who are doing the questioning builds unwavering curiosity about the unstable man in the back and leaves us tensed about his reaction to the constant probing.
With Se7en, Zodiac, and Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Fincher has proved himself to be one of the best genre filmmakers in the last two decades.
It helps that Fincher’s legendary affliction for precise camera movements is on full display in this season of Mindhunter as well. His camera follows the characters in almost perfect harmony. What this deliberate cinematography does is that it registers even subtle changes in a character’s movement, heightening our understanding of them: We keenly feel the hesitation in a suspect’s face and sense the nervousness in a junior investigator’s first foray into prison. The director supplements it with a unique soundscape that comprises effective sound cues. Scenes with Bill Tench thinking about his child are accompanied by a sound akin to a guttural cry of an unknown creature or a skewed violin string. Then there is the show’s soundtrack, which is a character in itself, throwing you off track by being rushed in a scene of supposed calm and at other times, becoming slow at a time of dread. Fincher’s outings have had a history of having persuasive soundtracks that always accentuate his visual storytelling and Mindhunter is no different; here sound is often stressful, eerie, and unobtrusive.
Perhaps the most succinct distillation of Fincher’s filmmaking philosophy came in an interview when actress Anna Torv, who plays Dr Wendy Carr in Mindhunter paraphrased Fincher, “I don’t want a distraction until I want it.” It makes complete sense: After all, when Fincher’s camera hijacks our eyes, his audio hijacks our ears, leaving us constantly uneasy and terrified of what we don’t hear and don’t see. In doing so, Fincher also hijacks our mind in Mindhunter.
When Ronak is not busy being a part-time PhD student and a full time nerd, he dreams about one of three things - becoming the Indian Bill Nye, dunking a basketball like Lebron James, or getting devoured by a velociraptor.