Defining deviancy: The clammy thrills of David Fincher’s “Mindhunter” on Netflix


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"Lore" (Credit: Amazon Studios)

Metal has an antiseptic sheen; skin is dirty. Reel to reel tape has concise borders and a distinct purpose. Hair tangles into knots and is superfluous. Microphones absorb sound and speech; the gaping, parted lips of a corpse are a gateway to secrets a dead tongue will never yield.  The opening credits of Netflix’s “Mindhunter,” debuting Friday, feature an interlacing of these images, mechanical devices used in crime-solving spliced by quick flashes of lifeless body parts, in a symbolic montage.

Succinctly the sequence illustrates the tale’s central theme, a clash of order and chaos, the firm borders of law and the fractured anarchy of evil, of everything that makes sense and the confusion of what never will. Then again, I could be saying all this because “Mindhunter,” an auteur’s take on the serial killer crime procedural, has tricked me into seeing meaning in its vision that isn’t really there.

What Netflix plies the audience with in “Mindhunter” is a version of the bread and butter that CBS presents in bottomless servings with its wildly successful crimetime programming brand, a series centered upon dedicated noble badges going against the system with the hope of solving nightmarish cases.

But no network shows benefit from the imprimatur of director David Fincher and his fellow executive producer Charlize Theron. Nor, for that matter, do they methodically wade into excavations of the true meaning of deviancy. The cops in this series are baffled, frustrated, and take their time because there is no other choice. They stand on the ghastly line between previous notions of civility and a savagery never previously seen or comprehended.

Fincher executive produces “Mindhunter” in addition to directing four of the first season’s 10 episodes, and his signature cinematic approach permeates every scene. He’s a master of wringing exposition and establishing character’s tics and traits via tightly framed shots of actors chatting passionately. Sometimes this approach lends a fire to the story, but in “Mindhunter” the effect is the opposite — this is the chilly, clinical side of the director at work here.

In fairness, the two “Mindhunter” episodes provided to critics have more going for them than mere atmosphere, largely thanks to robust performances by Jonathan Groff and Holt McCallany, who embody the familiar rookie and veteran cop partnership with a taut crackle.

Together and individually these actors elevate dialogue that comes across as contrived and stilted, particularly in the first episode. But within the expansive context of a series set in culturally liminal year of 1979, when America was still sobering up in the aftermath of Vietnam and Watergate, the wooden, brittle writing may be an intentional choice on the part of series creator Joe Penhall.

One view of the ‘70s holds that it was the era in which the long mythologized American sense of decency and trust in governmental authority was irrevocably shattered. Groff evokes this by lending an awkward, out-of-place confidence to his Special Agent Holden Ford, a young man who represents the tail end of a generation that views criminal behavior as a violation of an establishment in which he maintains faith.

Groff is tremendous at making Ford consciously uncool; he doesn’t fit with his contemporaries despite his strivings. In one scene he attempts to impress a colleague examining what the Bureau believes to be a new kind of threat, the homicidal sociopath, by quoting “Dragnet” as if it were gospel.

Ford behaves as if he has all the answers. Criminal motivations fit into predictable categories, such as crimes of passion or acts of desperation.

But when by-the-book practices spectacularly fail him in a field situation with an unstable suspect, he’s reassigned to a teaching position at Quantico.

Eventually Ford partners with veteran Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) in the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit, joining Tench on teaching tours of local police departments across the country. Along the way the two men come across unsolved case files involving levels of sadism that defy simple explanation.

“Mindhunter,” based on the memoir of FBI veteran John E. Douglas, benefits from a cast of skilled actors including Anna Torv (“Fringe”) in the role of Dr. Wendy Carr. Like Groff’s and McCallany’s character, Torv’s role is based on a real figure, Dr. Ann Wolbert Burgess. The late Robert Ressler, the FBI agent credited as pioneer of psychological profiling, serves as the model for Tench, while Groff’s Ford is another of Douglas’ many avatars (He is the inspiration for novelist Thomas Harris’ character Jack Crawford).

Aside from a burst of predictable gore in its opening moments, “Mindhunter” initially presents itself as a series that tells much more than it shows and trips over itself as it clunkily lays its expository groundwork in the first episode.

For previously mentioned reasons its narrative style batters the ear and can detract from Fincher’s purposeful camera work. The strain in the writing juts out like a stubborn cowlick during a lengthy meet-cute in which Ford makes the acquaintance of a sociology master’s degree candidate named Debbie (Hannah Gross), whose grad school reading list inspires Ford to consider the sociological underpinnings of deviancy.

While McCallany’s gruff portrayal of a weathered, determined lawman nicely complements Groff’s uptight, inquisitive greenhorn, “Mindhunter” doesn’t fully kick into gear until Ford gets into a room with convicted serial killer Ed Kemper (Cameron Britton), aberrant behavior made flesh.

Once Ford decides to bait and joust with Ed, an unnerving and excessively courteous yet physically imposing slob, the pulse of “Mindhunter” quickens considerably. Groff and Britton prove that a psychological thriller can evoke tension and dread without a droplet of blood splattering the screen. When Ed discusses the delight he takes in murder with the same lackadaisical affect as his rave review of a sandwich, the skin prickles and wriggles.

People familiar with Fincher’s work may get the nagging sense that they can deduce where this is all leading. Then again, one anticipates Penhall and his co-writer Jennifer Haley have taken all the oeuvre’s tropes and practices into account in developing the first season’s plot arc.

In choosing to accentuate the cerebral nature of horror over visceral displays, at least at first, “Mindhunter” departs from the standard approach to such lurid subject matter. These days, an in the realm of streaming, that deviant in itself — and it makes me curious enough to press onward and see what lies in wait for Ford, Tench and a nation on the cusp of a frightening new age.