David Fincher's filmography proves he had a larger role to play in Mindhunter than 'executive producer'
While Australian screenwriter Joe Penhall is credited as creator, David Fincher’s trademark is visible throughout the show.
There are filmmakers with cult followings everywhere. But the cult that David Fincher has cemented over time stands apart for its main attraction-machinations of serial killers, murderers and twisted crime. Not one with a long filmography, and with an interesting smattering of subjects, Fincher remains Hollywood’s authority on the serial killer.
So his return to the genre, as an executive producer for Mindhunter, the Netflix series, got his cult (and movie goers) interested. The series does not disappoint — it is this year’s best drama on the streaming platform, and perhaps one of the best on the small screen overall.
Mindhunter is a return to the roots process for Fincher and the team of writers that he ran. While Australian screenwriter Joe Penhall is credited as creator, Fincher’s trademark is visible throughout the show. It is a style sheet that is truly original and remains difficult to ape, for without the finesse of Fincher, his narrative techniques and filmmaking would come across as caricatures.
Fincher is best known for three films — Se7en, Fight Club and The Social Network. His serial killer and twisted murderer/criminal study extend to Panic Room, the English adaptation of Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and the runaway hit, Gone Girl. His signature storytelling has evolved ever since he made the shocker — Se7en, starring Brad Pitt, Morgan Freeman, Kevin Spacey and Gywneth Paltrow.
A grey-green color scheme, brooding long shots, key characters framed in the dark (in this case, Kevin Spacey), a sense of foreboding meshed into the story, and a down beat ending, were all there in this film. Most importantly, it is treatment of grotesque killings staying imprinted in one’s memory. All it deals with, essentially, are the mind games that well meaning, good cops have to battle when they are faced with a depraved, cold serial killer.
It would not be entirely incorrect to say that Hollywood had not evolved from the guignol form while dealing with twisted murderers till then. A touch of madness, and hyperbolic behavior would mark out the serial killer, or murderer, and things would end badly for them. Fincher’s killer was systematic, smart and committed. He/she is low key, conniving and hungry to get noticed at the right time.
Fincher took a step forward with another signature touch — the socially inept individual as protagonist, with Fight Club. While Fincher still says that his film is ‘horribly misunderstood’ (he mentioned this again at a recent press junket in London), the moderate hit and cult film still boggles your mind with the uncomfortable interspersing of its protagonist and antagonist. Fight Club has been called out for moral ambiguity, diffused relationships and disturbing hand-to-hand violent combat. In its own way, it revised the set norm of a protagonist — weird, unable to fit in and yet, one with a shocking personal story. This touch continued with Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Social Network; and is also visible in the personality of ‘Amazing Amy’ in Gone Girl.
With Mindhunter, David Fincher comes full circle — in calling out the serial killer by examining the original framework that defined this category of criminality. The Netflix series is based on a book, Mindhunter: Inside the FBI's Elite Serial Crime Unit, by John Douglas and Mark Olshaker. Reportedly, Charlize Theron had handed the book over to Fincher to make it into a movie some years ago. He took his time to get around to it, and Penhall claims to have already written out the entire script. But it is Fincher's ability to build a fascinating story around drab technique and boring, painstaking research that makes the series stands out.
Jonathon Gross and Holt McCallany play the FBI agents setting up the Behaviorial Science Unit in the post Hoover era; with involvement of a psychology professor, Dr Carr (Anna Torv). Their basic research material are interviews with the first ‘sequence killers’ in prison. Despite the gross, blood-curdling details of these conversations, the series is laced with everyday humor. An episode that begins with FBI agent Ford has to explain deviant behavior to young school kids in a sanitized manner is hilarious, such touches bring relief in this taut, clinical drama. The lives of these agents make for understated humane issues and stories. Deciphering the serial killer’s mind (or sequence killer, as it was known then) becomes a fascinating process of deconstructing ultra egotistic, methodical, arrogant criminals. Clinical and visually sparse, Mindhunter literally builds pathways for the viewer to enter the labyrinthine mind spaces of twisted killers and makes such crime seem all the more deplorable.
David Fincher is the first major Hollywood director to move to Netflix with House of Cards. One wonders if such a TV series were to be made here in India, context would be so different. Would exploring the mind spaces of those men who have committed heinous sexual crimes in Gurgaon, Haryana, New Delhi, Bihar and UP lead to similar pathological analysis? Aren’t power and control at the heart of such brutality and misogyny? Much as one wonders what would emerge, perhaps it would be best to hope for a David Fincher to take notice and interpret twisted killers/ criminals here at home. For true crime still remains an elusive genre on the Indian screen.
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