Mindhunters (2004)

“Welcome to the world of Mindhunters,” says Renny Harlin at the start of his DVD commentary. And what a world it is. The first shot plunges you deep into some very blue sea (shades of his 1999 film, Deep Blue Sea), and he observes that it was, in fact, unscripted and so, “unusual.” It means, he says, to “give the audience an idea of something that comes to play much, much later in the film, the backstory of one of the characters.” Compiled from extra footage, filmed originally to indicate a trauma suffered by Sara (Kathryn Morris), namely, her guilt over her little sister’s drowning death years ago.

As Harlin suggests, her nightmarized fear of water comes back a couple of times in Mindhunters. It becomes a particular problem when she and her fellow FBI profiler trainees are left on an island for a weekend, some kind of final exam devised by their notoriously perverse instructor, Harris (Val Kilmer). The Ten Little Indians plot is what it is: the island has no phones, no transportation, no way out, just pop-up mannequins designed for FBI/military target practice. It’s not long before a cat and then a trainee turns up real dead.

Harlin’s commentary (along with his three-minute “Walk Through Crimetown,” that is, the island’s pop-up dummies section) is easily the DVD’s most absorbing and instructive aspect. If his films (Die Hard 2, Cliffhanger, even his last minute fill-in on Paul Schrader’s set to make a completely new version of Exorcist: The Beginning) strike some as also-rans to John McTiernan’s or Spielberg’s action flicks, Harlin has also wrung out some terrific, if perverse work, including The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996), starring his former wife Geena Davis as a psycho assassin and really good mom. (Admittedly, my affection for this film and A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master leaves me in a minority.)

Here the Finnish born former hockey player cannily discusses the mess of Mindhunters, revealing that, after many years in Hollywood, he’s maintained a sense of humor and developed a deep understanding of his business. Describing the setting for the serial killing puzzle set before the wannabe profilers, he notes that much of the film takes place in Virginia and also off the coast of South Carolina. “So,” he asks, “Where should we shoot the film? Naturally, in Holland.” You have to like him. He goes on to explain the several-years-long trend “in Hollywood” to shoot outside Hollywood, because of money (tax incentives, lower costs). True, there are no coasts in Holland, but, well, okay, the shoot, he says more than once, was a “challenge.”

Among the adversities that cropped up, he notes that he and the props crew used a “Condor” cigarettes box to decorate an early crime scene (that ends up not being a crime scene, but a test: “Nothing,” he says, “is ever what it seems like,” hence, cheats abound), and that’s because in “movies dealing with serial killers and other nasty things, it’s very hard to get permission from major brand makers to use their brands”). His observations are consistently detailed and mostly interesting, as when he clarifies his efforts, via computer manipulation, to give the film a “unique look,” with rich color temperatures, “contrasty and dark… without forgetting the colors.” This as you’re looking at a completely dark and creepy scene wherein Harris is telling two students — Sara and J.D. (Christian Slater) — just how badly they’ve done in the opening test, as they’ve both been shot “dead.”

Along with the “look,” Harlin also likes to talk about his crew (in particular, DP Bob Gantz, whom he heard was “difficult,” which, he recalls, immediately piqued my interest”) and actors, always appreciatively, from the pony-tailed Dutch extra who has no lines but kisses a guy during a scene where the baby profilers are testing themselves by reading patrons in a bar (yes the kid who’s up guesses wrong), to Kilmer, whom he defends against his “difficult” reputation, saying he’s very thoughtful and intelligent, and now they’re friends, so there. Not to mention LL Cool J, who shows up as former Navy SEAL and current Philadelphia detective Gabe, an old buddy of Harris and most excellent profiler. As they worked on Deep Blue Sea, he’s Harlin’s “great pal” too. (“I call LL Todd,” he says, “because that’s how I call him in personal life, so I hope you don’t mind that.”)

For the film’s purposes, Gabe’s outsiderness is crucial — he’s a suspect for the already-bonded trainees, assigned by Harris to look after them. But when someone dies, the fact that he’s older, smoother, smarter, and blacker than the crew members makes him seem the likely traitor. No matter that he has no motive. Here, all rationality is submerged inside clever killing strategies, the goopier and grislier the better (the DVD includes some background on such concepts in a standard making-of doc, “Profiling Manhunters” and four minutes of a fight scene breakdown).

If realness is not a primary concern, stylized ookiness is. Harlin recalls staging murders that would leave open the possibility that any of the survivors might have committed them, which involves tricky cuts and shots designed to omit characters and enhance shadows. Everyone in the film’s world is nervous about the fiction-reality blur. Trainee Vince (Clifton Collins Jr.) resists being disarmed (following a vote by the group to take away all guns, and so, perhaps, put off the inevitable murders of everyone), saying, “It doesn’t feel real without my gun.” He doesn’t get it, but you will, long before he even starts to catch on.

Vince’s interest in realness has particular resonance 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, including Nicole (Patricia Velazquez, whom Harlin says he cast because he wanted a Latina to show the “FBI’s versatility” in hiring…), who’s just quit smoking and craves cigarettes; Rubik’s cube master Rafe (Will Kemp), who worries he’s not as smart as he thinks; Bobby (Eion Bailey), who mostly looks overwhelmed; and Lucas (Jonny Lee Miller), who resents Sara’s well-articulated lack of interest in him.

Real or not, Mindhunters delivers the requisite 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 — most of these results are then pored over by these budding CSI experts. The victims to be 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 has fallen prey to pop cultural overkill. And so now, the profilers are reduced to very regular victimhood, as likely to die as any adolescent girl wandering through a dark house in a nightie.

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 lack of vision stems from their own insecurities. 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.

While the accumulating bodies and declarations of motive (“He’s a puppeteer!”) are unclever, the movie does make good (if not quite enough) use of LL Cool J (Todd to his friends). “I’ll trust you when you’re dead,” Gabe snarls at Lucas, and frankly, his point seems well taken. Amid the frenzy of the kiddies, all tortured and convulsed 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 repeatedly sticks his neck out 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. Indeed, Gabe’s involvement is the film’s biggest puzzle.