Mindhunters is not a particularly good film, but it's the sort of movie that you might enjoy watching in a dorm with your college buddies. The film is about several FBI trainees who are left alone on an island as part of their training in the Bureau's psychological profiling program, and who then discover that one of them is a bona fide serial killer. As the trainees are bumped off one by one, they must now apply their training to each other, to figure out which of them is the mastermind behind these deaths. The story keeps you guessing as to the killer's identity—a character played by one of the film's bigger stars is bumped off fairly early, which is always guaranteed to keep audiences on their toes—and the victims die in creatively gruesome ways. While that last detail is perhaps not the sort of thing Christian critics ought to applaud, I was reminded of how my Bible school buddies and I used to get a kick out of smart, violent B-movies like John Carpenter's remake of The Thing.
The film is directed by Renny Harlin, who is best known for Die Hard 2 and was last seen in these parts when he reshot last summer's Exorcist prequel practically from scratch; the original director, Paul Schrader, had failed to give the studio the bloody and sadistic horror show that they had been hoping for, so Harlin was called in to make things a little more grisly. Mindhunters was actually filmed before all that, and it is easily the better film, but for some reason it was withheld from theatres in its home country, while it spent the past year and then some touring various European, Asian and Middle Eastern territories.
The film's here now, though, and in a year marked by high-profile disappointments, it's kind of reassuring to see a smaller movie that actually succeeds within the parameters of its more modest ambitions. It gets off to a shaky start, as J.D. Reston (Christian Slater) and Sara Moore (Kathryn Morris) track a killer down and are far too easily caught off their guard. But it turns out we were watching a training exercise, and Jake Harris (Val Kilmer), their superior, promptly chastises them for missing all the obvious points. This is followed by scenes of friendly banter as the trainees sit in a bar and analyze the people around them; it's all a bit reminiscent of how Sherlock Holmes and his brother used to compete to see who could deduce the most about passersby simply by looking at their clothing and mannerisms—except the Holmeses never tried to get a woman's phone number.
Then comes the mission, as Jake sends his trainees to an island on loan from the Navy, for a training exercise that involves tracking down a killer known as "the puppet master." Jake tells the trainees he is sending them to this island because they will be "isolated, alone, and forgotten," and "that's what it's like to be in the mind of a sociopath." To make things more complicated, the trainees are joined by an outsider named Gabe Jensen (LL Cool J), who is keeping an eye on them for more mysterious reasons. They don't trust him, and they find his off-the-cuff analysis of their own personalities a little too spot-on for comfort.
Then bad things begin to happen, all of them preceded by the discovery of a clock or watch that predicts the time of someone's death. As is often the case, the audience can sense something is amiss long before the characters do. One person sets a row of dominoes falling, and instead of trying to stop them—as anybody who has seen one of these movies might do—he or she just stands there and watches, with fatal results. In another scene, Harlin cuts to a shot of someone drinking coffee for no particular reason, so it comes as no surprise when, a few minutes later, everyone passes out because of something in that brew; and when they come to, it turns out that one more person has died.
More deaths ensue, and although each murder brings us one step closer to figuring out who the killer is—if only because there are fewer and fewer candidates left!—the script, by Wayne Kramer (The Cooler) and Kevin Brodbin (Constantine), has enough clever twists to keep us guessing right to the very end. Intriguingly, one of the film's running themes is that all of these traps are designed around the unique traits of their victims; as one person puts it, where there is a skill, there is also a weakness. So while the film may dwell just a little too much on the physical devices by which these characters meet their awful ends, the story's primary focus is, of necessity, on the characters and what makes them tick.
Eventually it all comes to an end in one of the more interesting stand-offs of recent memory, in which two characters face each other underwater, their guns held just above the surface, and each person waits for the other to come up for air. There's nothing particularly deep about this film—and Harlin's efforts to jazz things up do occasionally go over-the-top, as when he sets a blood-analysis montage to an absurdly rhythmic beat—but moments like this are the sort of thing that keep late-night video parties buzzing.Discussion starters
- One person says, "Where there's a skill, there's a weakness." Do you agree? Why or why not? How can our strengths become weaknesses? How can our weaknesses become strengths? What could these characters have done differently?
- One person says, "You don't confront your demons and defeat them. You confront them, then you confront them, then you confront them some more. Every single day." Is it possible to "defeat" the things that trouble us in our lives, during this life? What should we do if we cannot "defeat" them? Should our focus be on "defeating" them, or do we only "defeat" them when we have focused on something else?
- Jake says the most lethal weapon is not one's firearm, but one's brain. Do you think the movie supports this idea? Was the movie more interested in physical matters—such as all those grisly deaths—or in more psychological matters? Which of these things did it encourage you to focus on?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
Mindhunters is rated R for violence/strong graphic images, language and sexual content. People die because of various traps—they are shot, speared through the neck, frozen and shattered by liquid nitrogen, and so on—plus there is a fair bit of mutual physical abuse between the last two or three people standing. In a few scenes, dead animals and humans are shown hanging from hooks. Plus, two people are briefly seen having sex in a shower.
Photos © Copyright Dimension Filmscompiled by Jeffrey Overstreet
from Film Forum, 05/19/05
Renny Harlin (Die Hard 2) directed this action film before directing the second version of the recent Exorcist prequel, The Beginning. But Mindhunters, which stars Christian Slater, Val Kilmer, Patricia Velasquez, and L.L. Cool J., is finally here. And it's likely to disappear quickly … just like that Exorcist prequel.
Mindhunters follows FBI trainees performing exercises on an island, and what happens to them when they discover one of their colleagues is a serial killer. It's like Agatha Christie's Ten Little Indians all over again, as the trainees are bumped off one by one. Who's the killer? Or, perhaps a better question: Who really cares?
Peter T. Chattaway (Christianity Today Movies) writes, "Mindhunters is not a particularly good film, but it's the sort of movie that you might enjoy watching in a dorm with your college buddies. There's nothing particularly deep about this film—and Harlin's efforts to jazz things up do occasionally go over-the-top, as when he sets a blood-analysis montage to an absurdly rhythmic beat—but moments like this are the sort of thing that keep late-night video parties buzzing."
Harry Forbes (Catholic News Service) says it's "excessively violent. None of the characters is particularly appealing (intentional?), and you may find yourself rooting for which one gets knocked off next. There is a twist at the end, but after so many red herrings the payoff is only mildly surprising."
Mainstream critics have readers "good review hunting." Good luck with that.