Documentary filmmaker Emma Sullivan was already there when inventor Peter Madsen’s submarine, the UC3 Nautilus, went missing off the coast of Copenhagen in August 2017, with journalist Kim Wall on board. Sullivan had been filming Madsen, a hobbit-y egotist with electric blue eyes, for 18 months, and until that day, she believed she was making a film about his attempt to blast into space on a scrappy, self-made rocket, with the help of a dozen unpaid volunteers who believed in his charismatic DIY hustle. Madsen is found and flashes a thumbs up to Sullivan’s camera. But Wall isn’t — and the documentary turns into a rare opportunity to study a murderer before his first kill. Restrained, humanist and chilling, “Into the Deep” is both a portrait of evil and a story of the workers left ashore floundering to understand how they devoted their lives to a fiend.
“Into the Deep” is structured into two timelines. The first kicks off with Madsen’s team frantically hoping to find its hero alive, and from there sloshes through the drip of information as the killer changes his story again and again as pieces of Wall are dredged from the sea floor, all the way up to Madsen’s trial. Just as compelling is the second timeline where Sullivan rewinds back to the first email she sent Madsen after watching his viral Ted Talk — “Emma, you are about to submerge into quite a snake pit,” he responds — leading up to the day of the murder, as she sifts through her footage, searching for warning signs. After Madsen’s arrest, she never interviews him again. The last thing Sullivan directly hears him say is that he left Wall ashore, alive. She’s more interested in spending time with volunteers Anja, Stefan, Dalin and Jop, because they’re all asking themselves the same question rattling in her mind: How did they miss Madsen was a madman?
He just couldn’t have done it, insists Dalin, a young girl with wide eyes and a tousle of curly hair. Later, she shows Sullivan an old text message from Madsen: “I have (murder) a plan ready,” he wrote, describing how he’d bind, torture and dismember Dalin on the Nautilus if she didn’t get back to work. That’s how Wall was killed. For her own comfort, Dalin tries to wave the text off as a joke. But she can’t stop thinking about how he’d invited her on a private submarine trip, too.
Sullivan’s focus on the team’s naivety comes at the expense of major omissions. “Into the Deep” never interviews Madsen’s wife, or Wall’s grieving boyfriend — people who might have had a different perspective than sour disillusionment. Wall herself is an apparition in the film. The adventurous 30-year-old journalist had already traveled the globe, guided by a moral compass that led her to write about environmentalism, politics and science. To stay in the volunteers’ narrow perspective, the audience learns only as much about Wall as Anja or Stefan could have in a Google search.
Yet, Wall is human even in silhouette. When the volunteers think about her, they cry. It’s for Wall, says Anja, that she gives the police Madsen’s laptop password, where the investigators discovered his obsession with gruesome decapitation videos. Anja’s empathy for a woman she’d never met stands in sharp contrast to the boss she thought she admired — but who once menaced her with a hot poker, an outburst that Sullivan caught on tape.
Sullivan shuns tabloid sleaze. She tells the story spartanly, without blood or lurid violins. Her restraint, even her near-absence from the camera, has the paradoxical effect of making the film feel more personal. A less-involved filmmaker wouldn’t feel guilty selling the sizzle.
Joe Beshenkovsky’s editing is crisp and cooly unsentimental, except for a ham-fisted insert shot of a boat named Ship of Fools. That jab doesn’t feel like Sullivan’s intention. Tech geniuses like Madsen exist in a permissive stratosphere. They are allowed, expected even, to be megalomaniacal kooks, a heroic model overdue to be questioned. Madsen’s oddities — his rage against authority, his Lothario compulsions, the German military uniform, his declaration of war against a rival engineering org, Copenhagen Suborbitals — were within the margin of error for disrupters. Until people realized they weren’t.
“Into the Deep” floats the idea that Wall’s murder was one more experiment, another test for Madsen to prove he could pull off the impossible. Or perhaps it was his escape from losing the space race to his competitors, who were weeks away from showing him up. “Your life will end in downfall no matter what you do,” Madsen tells Sullivan months before the slaying. A man like him may as well aim for “the most spectacular downfall.” Mission accomplished.