Netflix series careful to portray serial killers as sick, not suave

New Netflix series Mindhunter may deal with serial killers, but the realistic show is careful to portray them as sick rather than suave, writes Ed Power

Jonathan Groff stars in Mindhunter, adapted from the memoir of a real-life FBI agent.

DAVID Fincher has given us two of the greatest ever serial killer movies: the feverish Seven (1995) and true-crime classic Zodiac (2007). For his third foray into the genre, he is eager to puncture the mystique around ritualistic murderers. The goal with Mindhunter — adapted from the memoir of a real-life FBI agent and just released by Netflix — is to hold these individuals to account as the pathetic, deranged monsters they truly were.

“The mission statement is that he wanted to denude this idea of the serial killer as a genius comic book villain with a twirling moustache, listening to the opera and drinking Chianti,” says Jonathan Groff, the musical and Broadway star whom Fincher requested to play against type when casting him as pioneering FBI behavioural science unit detective Holden Ford.

Groff is of course referencing Hannibal Lecter, as brought to screen with a wink and a leer by Anthony Hopkins in Jonathan Demme’s 1991 Silence of the Lambs. The killers we meet in Mindhunter, based on a series of interactions FBI agent John E Douglas had with convicted
murderers through the 1970s and 80s, cut far less of a dash. They are sick, not suave.

“Some of the stuff is just so horrible — you really can take your pick,” says Groff, “One killer takes off the head of his mother and puts her vocal chords in the trash.”

The 32-year-old will be known to many as a star of Glee and Frozen (he voiced romantic lead Kristof), in addition to portraying King George III in the original Broadway run of smash musical Hamilton. He is also one of the few mainstream actors to have come out as gay (he plays a straight romantic lead in Mindhunter). What will fans of his previous work make of his swerve into visceral true crime?

“Well maybe it’s not for eight-year-old girls dressed as Princess Elsa,” he says. “But people who liked Glee or Hamilton or even Frozen might hopefully watch something like Mindhunter. They are all very different. David Fincher has such a specific vision as an artist and the same could be said about those other projects. So perhaps there is a through line there.”

The new drama is set in the ’70s and goes to lengths to underscore the parallels between that period and today. Nixon — at that point America’s most controversial president — has just been ousted. Tensions wrack the Middle East. The aftershock of a cataclysmic recession can still be felt. Such unprecedented turmoil, it is strongly implied, has fuelled a serial killer boom.

Change is also sweeping the FBI. As the series gets under way, the regressive regime of J Edgar Hoover is not long in the past and the bureau is still struggling to push past the received wisdom that the world is divided into good and bad — with no grey in between.

“It was becoming less black and white,” says Groff. “The idea was emerging that you could gain some insights into people rather than just putting them behind bars and labelling them evil.”

The real John E Douglas interviewed the era’s most notorious psychopaths: Charles Manson, Ed Gein, Ted Bundy. In addition to inspiring Mindhunter, he was also an influence on Silence of the Lambs, with Clarice Starling’s FBI mentor Jack Crawford based on the agent.

Netflix is tightlipped as to which serial killers we will encounter in season one of Mindhunter — though the second episode introduces Edmund Kemper, a California killer who targeted female hitchhikers, butchered his grandparents and decapitated his mother.

“It was scary doing those scenes,” says Gruff. “Was Holden scared? I was certainly scared. One minute you’re having a regular conversation — it’s just two guys talking. And then he puts his hands around Holden’s neck.”

“A lot of people I know are obsessed with serial killers,” he continues. “I was not one of those. They are so into the books and films and podcasts. I read John’s book — for me that was really intense. I had to keep putting it down.”

Mindhunter sees Fincher resume his relationship with Netflix, for whom he created the streaming service’s original blockbuster, House of Cards in 2005. He has revealed that he was initially reluctant to return to serial killers. With Seven, especially, he had been accused of fomenting the “torture porn” movement that led to films such as Saw and Hostel. The charge always stung.

“This show is not about serial killers,” Fincher told Time last week. “This show is about FBI agents, and how they were able — through the application of empathy — to understand those people who were so difficult to understand. That was what was intriguing to me. I don’t need another serial killer title on my resume. This was not about that. It’s like in Zodiac — you never know who this person is. And in this show, he’s right there and he might talk to you.

Groff cuts a happy-go-lucky figure — so when he arrived on set, one of Fincher’s initial instructions was for him to dial back his chipperness. The first thing that had to go was his 10,000 watt, boyscout grin.

“I had auditioned for the Sean Parker role in [Fincher’s Facebook morality tale] The Social Network. David told me I was a good student, a good listener.

“Which is a good quality to have for Holden. David said early on that this character is not socially savvy. He said, ‘Jonathan you’re always smiling… stop smiling’. It’s one of my tics as a person.”

In addition to studying Douglas’s book, Groff talked to agents at the FBI national academy in Quantico, Virginia (where several Silence of the Lambs scenes were filmed).

However, he stopped short of consulting, as his character does, with actual serial killers. 

“I didn’t meet any serial killers for research — not that I am aware of anyway… perhaps I have met them and I just don’t know it yet!”

  • Mindhunter comes to Netflix today.


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