Alien 3 to Mindhunter: David Fincher’s Outsider Protagonists

Netflix's Mindhunter is the latest example of the unique, outsider characters in the work of David Fincher...

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

When FBI agent Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) sits down with convicted serial killer Edmund Kemper (Cameron Britton) in the Netflix series Mindhunter, he’s both terrified and fascinated. Kemper, serving multiple life sentences for a spate of brutal kidnappings and murders – including his own mother – could offer valuable insight into a criminal mindset that was barely understood in the late 1970s. Ford hopes to use a series of interviews with Kemper, and convicts like him, to build up a psychological profile which could be used to help track down other serial murderers. It soon becomes apparent, however, that Ford’s fascination with Kemper runs beyond the strictly professional.

Mindhunter, executive produced by David Fincher – who also directs four episodes – is based on the real-life research of John E. Douglas, who wrote about his work in the book Mind Hunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit. The Ford character is loosely based on Douglas, and explores how he and his colleagues Bill Tench (Holt McCallanay) and psychologist Wendy Carr (Anna Torv) begin to establish the groundwork for criminal profiling – and navigate the power corridors of a stuffy, set-in-its-ways Bureau in the process.

As well as the precision of its construction and filmmaking – directors Asif Kapadia, Tobias Lindholm, and Andrew Douglas put in sterling work alongside Fincher – one of the most compelling things about Mindhunter is the arc of its protagonist. When the series begins in 1977, Ford is a 20-something, idealistic and ambitious young agent who segues from hostage negotiation to the pioneering force behind a nascent behavioral crime unit. On the surface, Ford’s the model American citizen: precise hair, impeccably-pressed shirts, even-tempered.

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Yet from the opening episode, there’s the suggestion that something else might stir beneath Holden’s dry-cleaned blandness. His apartment is more than pristine – it’s bereft of personality. His style and demeanor make him seem far older than his 28 years. Compared to college student Debbie (Hannah Gross), he seems like a relic from the 1950s. Even when a frisson of romance stirs between the two as they talk at a bar one evening, Debbie is vocally disbelieving when Ford insists that he once worked undercover in a counter-culture group.

As Ford interviews Kemper and other killers, however, he becomes ever more fixated on his work. It’s striking that Ford seems ill-at-ease with most of his colleagues – “I don’t like him,” says stern unit chief Shepard (Cotter Smith) – yet he strikes up intimate conversations with sociopathic murderers with relative ease. At one point, we see Ford express his excitement to his partner at the prospect of meeting one jailed killer, whose path to conviction he’s evidently followed in detail. By the latter episodes, Ford has transformed almost beyond recognition, psychologically at least: he’s emotionally distant, willing to manipulate transcripts to cover his tracks, and behaves arrogantly when his methods are questioned by a pair of internal investigators. It’s hard to imagine the Ford we meet at the start of the series doing half of the things he does by its end.

Although Mindhunter isn’t, of course, the sole work of Fincher – we also have writer-creator Joe Penhall to thank – it’s easy to see why the director took such an interest in the series. Ford is, in many respects, a typical Fincher protagonist: brilliant, troubled, and something of an outsider.

Indeed, Mindhunter’s resemblance to two other Fincher works – Seven, Zodiac runs far deeper than the serial killers and moody lighting.

In Zodiac, Fincher’s peerless period thriller about the hunt for the title murderer, we see the unfolding case largely through the eyes of eccentric cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal). Graysmith’s desire to decode the taunting messages sent to his newspaper, the San Francisco Chronicle, gradually develops into a full-blown obsession, as he follows the case – and its stream of suspects – over more than a decade. Like Ford, Graysmith is a quiet, intelligent guy who becomes consumed by the task he’s set himself. 

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Seven’s a more straightforward thriller than Zodiac, but it too contains two outsider protagonists: the first is Detective Mills (Brad Pitt), who’s recently arrived in a gothic and dismal city just as a series of apparently unconnected killings start to occur. Then there’s Detective Somerset (Morgan Freeman) whose emotional distance, intellect, and cynicism put him at odds with his colleagues: “We’ll be real glad when we get rid of you, Somerset,” one cop says in the opening scene.

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Even Alien 3, Fincher’s badly compromised debut (interfering producers, script rewrites, a tight schedule – you’ve probably heard the stories), follows a similar theme. Ripley, having survived the screeching rollercoaster of Aliens, wakes up on a planet where she’s effectively the alien – the sole woman (and non-believer) on an all-male prison planet where the inmates have become monks. Melancholy and loneliness hang over Alien 3: the movie presents Ripley as a warrior left alone with her regret and grief (surrogate daughter Newt and potential lover Hicks having controversially died in the opening reel), and essentially cornered in purgatory by her acid-blooded nemesis.

To this day, Fincher refuses to talk very much about that debut film, but the lonely pall it conjures up lingers through many of the stories he’s told since. One of the plot threads in Seven’s murder mystery concerns Mills’ wife, Tracy (Gwyneth Paltrow): she initially agreed to move to the hellhole of a city out of loyalty to her husband, but her unease and loneliness is evident in almost every scene. Only once do we see her leave her apartment: the pivotal moment where she meets Somerset in a diner and confides that she’s pregnant, and hasn’t yet told Mills. It’s a piece of information that will have tragic consequences later on, of course, but also feeds into the sense of detachment that lurks elsewhere.

The film’s also an early showcase for Fincher’s affection for showing intelligent people diligently going about their work – something largely absent from Alien 3, unless you count those queasily long close-ups of an autopsy or Ripley deftly zapping life back into the battered android, Bishop. Seven opens with serial killer John Doe at work on his diaries and scrapbooks, stitching pages together, setting his thoughts down in his finicky handwriting, pasting in ghastly images of operations and other unspeakable things. 

That opening title sequence was devised by Kyle Cooper, but it has Fincher’s fingerprints all over it, so to speak – there’s a definite parallel between the opening and a later montage, where we watch Somerset poring through books and photocopying engravings from Dante’s epic poems. It’s one of several scenes that suggest a connection between Somerset and the killer he’s hunting down. Somerset is solitary, tired, frustrated, and angry at the senseless crimes he’s witnessed over his long career. John Doe feels a similar kind of disgust – though his response to it is, of course, a tad more sadistic.

Fincher’s interest in obsessive outsiders can be found away from the dark films that initially made his name in the 1990s. There are faint similarities between Fight Club’s nameless protagonist played by Ed Norton and Mindhunter’s Holden Ford: both live in spare apartments, dress smartly and anonymously, and have their lives changed by meeting two people who appeal to their repressed id. In the case of Ford, it’s Debbie and Ed Kemper. For Ed Norton’s character, it’s the free-spirited Marla (Helena Bonham-Carter) and the downright anarchic Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt).

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It’s surely significant that, even when Fincher turns to a real-life subject, like Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network, the protagonist follows a similar pattern of behavior. As written by Aaron Sorkin and played by Jesse Eisenberg, Zuckerberg is a Harvard graduate whose intelligence far outstrips his ability at creating and maintaining relationships. The Zuckerberg portrayed in The Social Network isn’t always likeable, but Fincher appears to admire his drive and dry wit. The movie ends with Zuckerberg at the helm of a website worth billions, yet more isolated than he was even as an awkward student years earlier. It’s a poignant moment, even if Zuckerberg has brought much of the isolation on himself. 

Not all the films in Fincher’s body of work fit the template discussed so far, though it’s telling that the best ones do: in his thriller remake, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, it’s Rooney Mara’s misfit hacker Lisbeth Salander who lights up the screen. In Gone Girl, it’s arguably the calculating antics of Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike) that are the most memorable.

There’s a likely reason why Fincher’s fascinated with characters who are so single-mindedly absorbed with one subject: his movies have an obsessive quality themselves. In the midst of his absorbing plots, Fincher reliably picks out small details for our attention: the particular way light shines through a car window as Brad Pitt’s character talks about a partner’s shooting in Seven; the pattern of blood left behind after a punch-up in Fight Club; Ed Kemper’s disconcertingly huge feet in Mindhunter.

Talk of Fincher’s directing style often turns to his tendency to demand a lot of takes. Really, though, that’s a marginal detail, like how many pairs of running shoes an Olympic sprinter goes through during his training. What arguably matters is what all those takes signify: a filmmaker who’s fascinated by specifics. If the camera moves, it’s for a reason. If he cuts to an object or an actor’s body language, it’s to tell us something important.

Like his characters, Fincher has a way of looking at the world that is entirely his own. It’s that outsider’s perspective that makes his work, and the protagonists in them, so endlessly watchable.