“It doesn’t feel real without my gun,” says wannabe FBI profiler Vince (Clifton Collins Jr.). The “it” in question is the test he and his fellow trainees are enduring, thanks to overtly perverse trainer Harris (Val Kilmer), who has deposited the newbies on an uninhabited island for a weekend of practice profiling. No phones, no transportation, no way out, just dummies. Literal dummies—the island has been outfitted with pop-up mannequins by the military, so recruits can practice shooting bad guys. It’s not long before a cat and then a trainee turns up real dead.
And so, in Mindhunters, the relationship between realness and not is especially fraught. And Vince’s concern with maintaining a sense of realness turns out to be more prescient than he could have possibly know. Vince’s interest in realness has particular resonance, apparently, because he’s in a wheelchair due to a long-ago shooting escapade, he’s understandably edgy when it comes to guns. He’s also understandably distrustful of his fellows, who are mostly dull and marked with idiosyncrasies to be exploited by the killer on their island, thusly: leader J.D. (Christian Slater) worries he’s not quite good enough to lead; Sara (Kathryn Morris) nurses a longstanding guilt over her little sister’s drowning death; Nicole (Patricia Velazquez) is the “sexy Latina” who’s just quit smoking and craves cigarettes; Rubik’s cube master Rafe (Will Kemp) worries he’s not as smart as he thinks; Bobby (Eion Bailey) mostly looks overwhelmed; and Lucas (Jonny Lee Miller) resents Sara’s plain lack of interest in him.
Also tagging along for the ordeal is former Navy SEAL and current Philadelphia detective Gabe (LL Cool J). The fact that Harris introduces him as an old buddy and excellent profiler is enough to make the crew distrust him (they all doubt Harris’ intentions, as he’s something of a notorious psycho). Then there’s the “outsider” factor—Gabe is older, smoother, smarter, and blacker than the crew members, all of which makes him seem the likely traitor. No matter that he has no motive—in serial-killer-land, all rationality is submerged inside clever killing strategies, the goopier and grislier the better.
Mindhunters delivers on the gross-outs. The practice crime scenes feature carefully arranged maggots and roaches crawling over rotted food and body parts, and the one-by-one murders are calculated to ensure maximum horror for survivors and viewers, involving involve knives, guns, drowning, electrocution, acid-poisoning, liquid-nitrogen freezing (the character breaks into smashed-up fragments), and a head chopped off. With all this precision going on, the crew’s concerted inability to figure out the puzzle is increasingly tedious. They cock their heads and toss their hands in the air, frustrated that the clues left behind remain unreadable to these ostensibly highly trained super-professionals. All of which goes to show that profiling, once a respected career choice (at least in the movies, back when Silence of the Lambs had everyone thrilling to fava beans), it has long since fallen prey to pop cultural overkill. And so now, the profilers are reduced to regular victimhood, as likely to die as any adolescent girl wandering through a dark house in a nightie.
You might read this as an elevation of the villain’s ingenuity, a strange form of democratization (we could be profilers too, if it takes so little actual intelligence or skills), or even a response to the FBI’s still-in-decline post-9/11 rep. As the survivors scramble to solve puzzles before each murder occurs (arranged according to a specific timeframe known only to the killer), the film frames repeated dilemmas concerning trust, deceit, and readability. Even though the profilers are supposed to be able to read each other, their actual lack of vision stems from their own insecurities. Each makes visible a costly weakness, premised on desire and fear of being found out, for whatever reason. If only Nicole didn’t want that cigarette so badly. If only Vince wasn’t so attached to his gun. And if only Sara could get over the drowning scene. Yeah, yeah, yeah, she’s staring off into space again. Next.
While the considerable amassing of bodies and declarations of motive (“He’s a puppeteer!”) turn unclever right off, restless viewers might seek out something to occupy their attention. Available distractions are Morris—long since turned tv detective, in Cold Case—and LL. Both Sara and Gabe have something to prove, namely, that they aren’t who they appear to be. On one level, this is the project of a formula film like Mindhunters, to offer up stereotypes or clichéd plot points and tweak them ever so slightly so you pretend for milliseconds at a time that you’re surprised by anything that happens.
But on another level, the film is part of another project altogether, the LL star-making project. As he continues along his narrow pathway of movie roles—he’s always LL, in some form, whether in S.W.A.T., The Deep Blue, or Deliver Ws from Eva—he’s also making that brand-name performance durable and welcome. Here, amid the frenzy of the kiddies, all tortured and convulsive over their impending demises, he’s vividly together (one stunt scene has him walking along a wall, his mountain-climbing feet and hands stuck into bullet holes he’s shot, in order to rescue the wholly distrusting Vince. That he sticks his neck out repeatedly for them suggests a certain nobility of spirit, even beyond the practicality of survival in what amounts to a slasher film with young adult (as opposed to high school) victims.
It’s actually hard to fathom just why Gabe is involved in this foolishness. A friendship with Harris only makes sense if you presume that long ago, Harris had something to offer. And Gabe’s apparent inclination to rescue Harris’ team—from Harris or the unseen killer—is too complex to call heroic. He’s a puzzle the film cannot solve.