What David Fincher’s Fascination With Serial Killers Tells Us About His Filmmaking

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Photo: Merrick Morton/Netflix

There are plenty of films about serial killers, but very few filmmakers who have shown as consistent an interest in them as David Fincher. Since his second feature, 1995’s Seven, established him among our major directors — and provided one of the most disturbing portraits of a fictional serial killer ever made — Fincher has revisited the subject twice in film, with 2007’s Zodiac and 2011’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Now, as the executive producer and director of four episodes of the Netflix series Mindhunter, Fincher hasn’t just gone back to the well. He’s plunged deeper than ever into it.

Created by Joe Penhall and based on the book by John E. Douglas and Mark Olshaker, Mindhunter follows FBI agents Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) and Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) as they seek to understand a new kind of criminal on the rise in the 1970s: men who kill strangers for reasons that seem to exist outside typical notions of motive and psychology. Ford and Tench travel the country interviewing these “sequence killers,” trying to build a criminal-profiling approach based on how they describe and explain their behaviors. Needless to say, the work takes its toll on the agents as well as those around them, all of whom, no surprise, would rather not be exposed to such depravity. It’s a series that treats the concept of a serial killer as what one of Ford and Tench’s first subjects, Edmund Kemper, so memorably describes as a “vocation.”

Even if Fincher hadn’t shown a previous interest, this notion of the serial killer’s life as a vocation might still make him the right director for the job. Few modern filmmakers are more technical and assiduous, more conscious of directing as a vocation than Fincher, who’s notorious for his remarkable, obsessive attention to detail. He’s famous for shooting dozens of takes of every scene, and while that could seem like sadism from the outside — and, occasionally, the inside — there’s a purpose to it. The depth of Fincher’s craft is such that he’s inspired a cottage industry of what you might call Fincher Studies, dedicated to itemizing and understanding his camerawork, his blocking, his mise-en-scène. In Fincher’s films, these elements are often synced together to a remarkable extent, and achieving that kind of precision requires a willingness to work until you get it right.

It also requires the skill to conceive of your shots with specificity, a trait few directors possess. After acknowledging that quality as essential to Fincher’s work, it should then be unsurprising that process plays such an important role in the stories he tells. The best example of this might be Gone Girl, which builds a scenario and then delights in taking it apart before your eyes, showing how its protagonist duped the world step-by-step, but it’s in his other movies, too: the baroque nature of the murders in Seven, the soap-making rebellion of Fight Club, the backwards-aging of Benjamin Button, the call-and-response hunt for the Zodiac killer, the backroom power-brokering of House of Cards, and, maybe most of all, the creation of Facebook, a product that plays an unprecedented role in human life but whose origin story wouldn’t have even seemed filmable to all but the most process-oriented of directors. If Fincher is interested in a subject, then he is also interested in how it works — and for him, the two are inseparable.

Back to serial killers. Seven is a great film not for the audacity of its murderer’s designs, nor the symbolic starkness of its setting, though these are exceptional qualities. Instead, its supreme achievement is in the way that all of its threads cohere and climax in the final scene, in which the killer John Doe folds himself and the detectives into his plot within a plot. By implicating them in his recreation of the seven deadly sins, Doe suggests that these murders wouldn’t and couldn’t happen if there weren’t cops around, if there weren’t bourgeois communities in need of protecting. In rendering that reversal on screen, Fincher implicates us, the viewer, in what’s happening. It isn’t Funny Games, necessarily, but it’s close: The cops are the avatars of the audience, and, like them, we are essential to the creation of this movie. That infamous box wouldn’t be there if there wasn’t an audience to see what was inside it.

Could Fincher have achieved this effect with a subject beyond serial killers? Possibly, but what makes Seven’s depiction of violence unique is that it generates a disconnect between what we’re watching and how we feel. We’re watching something terrible, and yet we’re riveted by it. As a subject of critical thought, this is hardly a fresh idea, ranging from Thomas de Quincey’s 1827 essay “On Murder Considered as one of the Fine Arts” to the recent bout of self-reflection brought on by the immense popularity of true-crime storytelling. But Fincher’s interest isn’t in the ethical import of enjoying art about serial killers. Rather, by focusing on a psychology most of us won’t try to inhabit or understand, he can show us a reflection of ourselves while hiding the mirror. We may think our responses to these serial killers are pure, that our obsessions lie in trying to find the truth, but then Fincher draws us closer and closer, until he finally shows us how little distance separates us from them.

If Zodiac is a kind of middle ground for Fincher, focusing less on the killer’s actual crimes and more on the colossal shockwaves that they send through our culture, then Mindhunter closes the loop. When FBI Agents Ford and Tench walk into a room full of local cops, Ford tries to insist on the value of understanding why a man like Charles Manson ended up the way he did. The cops are dealing with their own grotesque case, and so far, they’re stumped, the details and nature of the crime so appalling that it’s hard for them to imagine any human being who could’ve committed it. Meanwhile, they greet the mention of the name Charles Manson with boos and rejection: “He’s just bad,” they say, and that’s that. Soon, we’re watching Ford talk to Ed Kemper, who seems like anything but the picture of evil. In that moment, our expectations, like Ford’s, are shattered. We no longer know what serial killers are supposed to look and sound like.

This is Fincher’s sweet spot. Like all of his work, Mindhunter isn’t just about the psychology of the killer — it’s about the psychology of the viewer as voyeur, and the way we’re at once repelled by and attracted to deviancy. At the same time, Mindhunter is Fincher’s most self-aware treatment of serial killers as a filmmaker. Its investigations of process and manipulation are a commentary on the strange nature of craft itself, particularly when applied to something as appalling as murder. Fincher’s killers never commit crimes of passion, the old-fashioned stuff of police work; they’re always in control, playing a game with those meant to thwart them. But here more than ever, Fincher acknowledges that the power of what we see lies not only in its effect on us, but in the pull that it exerts on our interest and curiosity, our prurient desire to know why. In a sense, Mindhunter serves as an artistic thesis statement for the director, the longform equivalent of “I think people are perverts.” It’s also a reminder of how few filmmakers out there have as much control of their medium as he does.

Why Is David Fincher So Fascinated by Serial Killers?