In the 1970s the FBI adopted behavioural science as a means of capturing the very worst of crims.
Crime and period dramatisations are have been all the rage in recent times: Unabomber, The Menendez Murders, True Detective, Aquarius, American Crime to name a few.
The latest, Mindhunter from director David Fincher, is based on the memoir of FBI veteran John R. Douglas. The cases may be fictional but the 1970s backdrop reveals the bureau’s early work in behavioural science.
Jonathan Groff (Looking) plays agent Holden Ford (yes, really) who is teamed with veteran agent Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) in the Behavioural Science Unit. Ford becomes fascinated with new sociological evidence that suggests serial killers and extreme criminals are more than just bad apples.
Are criminals born that way or are they formed? In the 1970s the FBI and police forces saw no reason to look beyond the former.
“As far as the FBI is concerned psychology is for backroom boys,” unit chief Shepard (Cotter Smith) insists.
But at the age of 29 Ford enrols in a university course to open his eyes to new theories. If he can understand the criminal mind, maybe he can help capture or prevent the worst amongst society. For the decidedly-square Ford, university and its free-spirited campus makes him a fish out of water.
Meanwhile he is partnered with Tench to criss-cross America giving lectures to rank and file cops about new behavioural methodology. That even extends to screenings of Dog Day Afternoon, famous for its bank hostage negotiation scenes with Al Pacino. In Iowa one unsolved local case, surrounding a mother & child, leaves the pair baffled. Ford soon immerses himself deeper and deeper in questions of motive, mind and murder, but at the risk of making it his personal quest.
Fincher contrasts the awakening of this dark world for Ford with a sexual awakening through his student girlfriend Debora (Hannah Gross). The ’70s will prove a liberating time for this young man. Also set to appear is Anna Torv as psychologist Dr. Wendy Carr.
The drama by Joe Penhall (Blue/Orange) wonderfully captures the vernacular and period behaviour of the ’70s, from smoking in restaurants and planes to hip phrases like “jive talk” and “honey trap.” The soundtrack features everything from 10CC to Toto, Saturday Night Fever and even Little River Band.
Groff is effortless as the driven young agent, so straight in his appearance he is mistaken as Mormon. After such torrid sexuality in Looking it’s quite the performance to see him having heterosexual sex here. Holt McCallany steps up as co-star, bringing an earthiness to the partnership.
Early episodes don’t descend into the horrors of Seven, nor the intensity of the genre-defining Silence of the Lambs, but given the set-up I’m expecting it won’t be too long before we do.
It’s pretty clear this won’t just be a quaint reminder of how the FBI came to appreciate the benefits of psychology, but were pushed to the brink at a deeply personal level, in order to revolutionise their entire modus operandi.
Mindhunter is now screening on Netflix.