Sunday, October 29, 2017

Monsters Among Us: Netflix's Mindhunter

Holt McCallany and Jonathan Groff in Mindhunter

If the average citizen ever comes across [the psychopath] in his reading, he ordinarily imagines raving madmen and consigns them to the care of hospital psychiatrists. Or, if the citizen is a little more sophisticated, he thinks in terms of crime and daring escapades, and relegates the perpetrators to the province of the police. He does not know – he has not been told – that the psychopath is the enemy of his life, the adversary of his welfare. He does not know – he has not been told – that the psychopath is the harbinger of social and political distress, the carrier of a plague of wars, revolutions, and convulsions of social unrest.
– Robert Lindner, Must You Conform? (1956)

When the Las Vegas shooter, Stephen Paddock, recently took out over 500 people at a country music event, people struggled in vain to find a motive. Since there was nothing in recent history with which to compare this horrific deed, people sought the most obvious clues to define his actions. Was he recruited by ISIS? Could he have been a white supremacist? Since Paddock was described in the news as 'a quiet and loving man' by all who apparently knew him (as if silence automatically guaranteed sanity), the question remained: what made him commit such a monstrous act? When you spend many months acquiring a huge arsenal, meticulously planning both your location and your prey, and then you present a horrific display of mass murder, clearly there's a lot more going on than being a 'quiet and loving' guy. At the very least, his actions reveal that he didn't like people very much. But since no one found a convenient label with which to define his actions, Paddock was quickly dropped from the headlines and returned to the oblivion where he once resided. He disappeared from the news as if he had never been there.

With the proliferation of social media and texting, our culture has been losing touch with the sensory when it comes to understanding human behaviour. Using our intuition, where body language can sometimes tell us as much about someone as their words, has been replaced by the need to impose meaning on deeds rather than extrapolating meaning from them. In certain areas of arts education today, human experience is perceived through the prism of societal paradigms which deprive students of the process of being enraptured by the work before they judge it. We are taught to seek out the presence of racism, homophobia, and misogyny before we get to experience art and figure out why we respond to it the way we do. In other words, we are being taught what to think before being shown how to think. Is it any wonder, then, that people – in a world reduced more and more to black and white, victim and victimizer, right and wrong – are losing the capacity to comprehend the complexities of nuance and ambiguity as a means to understanding human transgressions? In his book, Open Minded, philosopher Jonathan Lear suggested that everywhere we look in contemporary culture, knowingness has taken the place of thought. “My own fantasy is that we will be looked back on as a generation that defensively ignored the power of fantasy,” he writes elsewhere. “But the level of fantasy is the level at which people live.” Which is why often the wrong questions get asked when we consider someone like Stephen Paddock and his obvious rage. Instead of fitting him in the duds of a converted jihadist, perhaps we should ask first where this boiling anger came from. Rather than considering him just a product of insane gun laws, we should be asking what fantasies fed a worldview that told him that 500 people must be machine-gunned at a music festival.

Dramatists from Shakespeare to Chekhov have always probed questions of human motivation and their insights are partly what we look to them for. Their dramas are so compelling that they open up many responses in us and they have been able to stand up to endless interpretations, on the page and in production. Philosophers, theologians, psychologists, novelists and filmmakers have also grappled for decades with questions of morality without coming up with simple answers. “Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains,” philosopher and humanist Jean Jacques Rousseau mused over two hundred years ago in The Social Contract. Psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich would respond to Rousseau many years later, “The social contract, at best, is no more than a makeshift to maintain life. It has heretofore not been able to remove the agony of life.” The seemingly endless quest to understand our nature, which means bravely dipping into those dark areas that produce "the agony of life," is what produces great drama. But we live now in an age where delving into those riddles of human experience has given way to relying on behaviour as a means to defining who we are and why we do what we do. Drama has given way to dogma. I was pondering all this while viewing David Fincher's Netflix thriller, Mindhunter, a bold new series which uncorks the ambiguities that great drama produces as well as the dangers that dogma disguises.

Mindhunter examines with a chilling subtlety the genesis of criminal profiling at the Federal Bureau of Investigation during the late seventies when serial mass murders were starting to become common coin. Although I wouldn't say that the series was made in direct response to that shift away from comprehending the power of fantasy in people's lives, it is what the 10-part first season is ultimately about. Created by Joe Penhale, and based on the true crime book, Mind Hunter: Inside the FBI's Elite Serial Crime Unit, written by FBI agents John E. Douglas and Mark Olshaker, Mindhunter is a factual drama based on their travelling across America to interview a number of the most violent serial killers incarcerated – including Edmund Kemper (Cameron Britton), Jerry Brudos (Happy Anderson) and Richard Speck (Jack Erdie) – in order to compile a study that would help the FBI learn more about psychopaths with the purpose of catching them and hopefully preventing further carnage. Mindhunter also examines the kind of damage done to the psyches of those who devote their lives to investigating the monsters among us. In David Fincher's 1995 grisly serial killer drama, Se7en, he played coy intellectual games that exploited our prurient fascination with violent murder, but Mindhunter is more reminiscent of his daring and disturbing Zodiac (2007), where investigators gradually become casualties of their own compulsions in their efforts to find and capture a serial killer.

When the debut episode opens, FBI agent Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff), a straight-arrow investigator based on John E. Douglas, fails to remedy a hostage crisis. While his boss, Shepard (Cotter Smith), is relieved that the only casualty was the perpetrator, Holden is convinced that no one should have been killed at all. Growing more determined to understand better ways to defuse those kinds of circumstances, he teams with FBI veteran Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) – based on agent Robert Ressler – who initially resists Holden's zeal even as he supports the purpose of the task. "How do we get ahead of crazy if we don't know how crazy thinks?" he asks Shepard. What Tench perceives, as an old-school detective, is that he's entered an unexplored realm. A majority of these murders aren't being committed by criminals like John Dillinger anymore, or out of the passion stirred by domestic violence; they are now being done by strangers who defy the normal sorts of incentive. Mindhunter delves into the shadowy recesses of a different kind of criminal mind, and it also shows how these killers can come to manipulate even those who are investigating them.

Hannah Gross as Debbie

The first episode is a little too explicit in laying out the groundwork for the series, but it sets the pattern for the way Mindhunter pulls the rug out from under our expectations. At first, Holden resembles the earnest boy scout that Guy Pearce's Ed Exley was at the beginning of Curtis Hanson's L.A. Confidential. But once he starts dating Debbie Mitford (Hannah Gross), a post-grad student he meets at a club, he taps into a carnal hunger that fuels his curiosity and it takes him places he hasn't gone before. Initially their pairing appears no more than a conceit. You hardly expect the free-spirited Debbie to find someone as tightly wound as Holden appealing, but Hannah Gross, who's as lithe as a prowling panther, brings a supple humour – like that of the young Lauren Bacall – that makes her scenes both sexy and funny, as if the delectable process of drawing out Holden's unexplored id sends bolts of electricity through her. There's a nifty joke in Mindhunter, too, in such a clean-cut looking character in the seventies pushing the cutting edge of deviant analysis at the FBI. But unlike Kyle MacLachlan's equally innocent Jeffrey in David Lynch's Blue Velvet, who is tickled with curiosity about his own perverse fantasies, or MacLachlan's FBI sleuth, Dale Cooper, in Lynch's Twin Peaks, who is aware that he possesses a shadow in his personality, Groff's Holden goes in a completely unexpected direction.

When we first watch Holden and Bill, they team up like a Mutt and Jeff duo and the wily veteran, Bill Tench, seems too old-fashioned for Holden's radical methods. But their relationship slowly morphs into one where Tench has the greater hold on sanity while Holden becomes as detached and didactic in his methods as the various killers they interview in prison. Holt McCallany has the tough exterior of an old bruiser, but reserves of sensitivity seep through his thick skin – especially in some of the domestic scenes with his wife Nancy (Stacey Roca). His marriage has been strained by an adopted autistic child who does not speak, and the brutality of his work has come to cast a shadow over his home life. There's a lovely scene late in the series where he finally breaks down over the cumulative horror of investigating so many hideous crimes. But unlike many marital stories which succumb to melodrama as the family grows further apart, his confession draws them closer together. Their reconciliation scene is one of the most moving in the series.

Anna Torv as Wendy Carr.

In time, Holden and Bill are joined by Wendy Carr (Anna Torv), a psychology professor working towards getting tenure at a Boston university, who develops a cerebral fascination with Bill and Holden's investigations into deviant psychology and joins their team. Torv plays Carr as a different kind of loner, a closeted lesbian, who lives a double life and isn't content doing so. Her emotional detachment due to her hidden sexuality allows her to take refuge in her intellectual pursuits, but it also serves to isolate her. For all the skills the three of them have in probing the unconscious minds of serial murderers, it's ironic that they show little talent for reading each other's hidden selves. (McCallany's Tench comes closest when he warns Holden that his methods will one day come back to bite him in the ass. And they do.)

If the lead actors are well cast, the gallery of monsters are equally vivid. For instance, Cameron Britton's Edmund Kemper, who had abducted and murdered several women (as well as his mother and his paternal grandparents), is a hulking giant with the soft skin of an adolescent who remains trapped in arrested development. His quiet eloquence as he details his crimes has a narcissistic self-awareness that grows more and more unnerving. Britton's Kemper is so assured in his own capacity for violence that he feels no need to demonstrate danger – and that's what makes him so unsettling. Next to Britton, Anthony Hopkins's mannered menace as Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs is nothing more than an actor's stunt. Happy Anderson's Jerry Brudos (a necrophiliac with a fetish for women's shoes) and Jack Erdie's Richard Speck (who murdered eight student nurses in Chicago) are more demonstrative personalities, but the actors never use the opportunity for mugging. The frightening force of their personalities comes to mask deeper recesses of rage and pain that are sealed off from us. Over time, Holden himself recoils inside himself and becomes cut off from his deeper self. Jonathan Groff's performance is riveting in the same way Al Pacino's was in The Godfather, where we watched an open-faced college kid slowly turn into a hardened mobster. In his later scenes with Debbie, as their relationship begins to crumble, Holden is unable to read the urgency of her feelings and takes cold refuge in his methodology to deal with her. Their break-up is the polar opposite of the seductive vibes they gave off when they first meet at the dance club. Holden's curiosity has turned into arrogant calculation: he not only cuts himself off from the woman he cares for, but he also wrongly characterizes a school principal (Marc Kudisch) as a potential pedophile when the circumstances are far more complex.

Cameron Britton as Edmund Kemper.

Mindhunter has its faltering moments. In some of the middle episodes, Holden and Bill spend an inordinate amount of time helping law enforcers catch various suspects of deviant crimes and the series begins to resemble another version of CSI crossed with The X-Files. (David Fincher directs the four episodes that bookend the series.) There are also portentous scenes involving a lost kitten that suggest perhaps darker things to come, but could also be a red herring. Teasers like this are common to the conventional thrillers that Mindhunter transcends.

In his best work (Zodiac, The Social Network, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), Fincher bridges the analog and digital worlds where technology both frees and chains us. In Zodiac, set in the seventies like Mindhunter, he anticipates, through the doggedness of detectives and journalists hunting a killer, a social-media antecedent that prepares us for the one we have at our disposal today in digital technology. The Social Network is a comedy of malice about a social malcontent who creates an online network (Facebook) which, ironically, creates a Global Village allowing people across the world to be 'friends.' The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is about the miracle of a man who is able to live his life backwards – from old age to infancy – but can never find freedom from the curse of mortality. The American remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which improves on both the original book and Swedish film adaptation, concentrates on how two radically different people –  a journalist who nestles in the analog world of magazines and newspapers and an abused woman who is an online hacker hiding behind a shield of digital armour – need to work together to solve an old murder. Not only is Mindhunter a marvelous distillation of all Fincher's own driven pursuits, it's a timeless reminder of many of the themes that make up our own. 

 Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa, Randy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica, Artificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Talking Out of Turn: A Collection of Reviews, Interviews and Remembrances currently being assembled on Blogger.   

No comments:

Post a Comment