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Sundance 2020: ‘Into the Deep’ is a genuinely chilling true crime doc

Photo Credit: Emma Sullivan / Courtesy of Sundance Institute
 
 

Editor’s Note: Vanyaland’s Nick Johnston is out in Park City, Utah for the 2020 Sundance Film Festival; click here for our continued coverage from the fest and also check out our official Sundance 2020 preview.

On August 11, 2017, Danish inventor and amateur astronaut Peter Madsen was rescued from his sinking self-made submarine, the UC3 Nautilus, after what Madsen had described as mechanical failure. There was one other passenger on board, a journalist by the name of Kim Wall, who had been following the tinkerer for a Wired article about his feud with another amateur space-venture, Copenhagen Suborbitals, and she was nowhere to be found when Madsen was rescued. He first claimed that he was the only person traveling in the vessel, and when that was proven false, he stated that he’d dropped Wall off on shore. That, too, was a lie, and less than a year later, Madsen was sentenced to life imprisonment for her murder and dismemberment after a showy, headline-grabbing trial. Emma Sullivan’s Into the Deeptakes you deep inside Madsen’s world, through extensive and genuinely stunning footage that the documentarian filmed over the course of two years, both pre-murder and in its immediate aftermath. It is a tremendous work, one more bone-chilling than any number of features playing in the midnight lineup this year at Sundance.

Several years before those terrible events, Sullivan reached out to the soon-to-be murderer with a benign goal: To document his attempts at becoming the first amateur astronaut. Madsen, a charismatic dreamer, initially comes across as an Elon Musk-meets-Chuck Yeager type, a man of action  who wants nothing more than to conquer the unknown under his own power. Well-known as a media figure and character in both Sweden and Denmark, he’s a press-hungry adrenaline junkie, and most of his collaborators are able to write off some of his more difficult moments as mere quirks of genius. He’s the idea guy, and those collaborators are, in actuality, a huge team of volunteer engineers, who he’s worked with for a number of years by the point that Sullivan starts filming, do the actual dirty work in order to make his ideas a reality. Once that fateful day happens and the carefully controlled image that Madsen crafted begins to slip, Sullivan sticks with the team, documenting their reactions — as well as her own — to the discovery that their boss was an honest-to-Christ psychopath. The women in the group wonder if they were initially intended to be the victim (as one incredible text exchange between a volunteer and Madsen shows), and the men puzzle over what they could have done differently in order to prevent this from happening. It’s gripping and painful to watch these folks go through the stages of grief, some starting anew with each gory revelation from his trial, and I can hardly imagine how difficult it was for Sullivan to put this film together.

As a film, however, it leans a bit too hard into the sensationalistic stylings of many true crime docs, especially those on Netflix, which is distributing this film, and a non-linear narrative might have actually hurt her flow in some places, though I can understand wanting to preserve her best footage for the right moment. That said, her material is much, much stronger than what many of those filmmakers have to work with, and this still could have been a typically solid hagiography of which the Sundance line-up often has dozens like it, had Madsen managed to either control his demons or, as a friend pointed out to me on Twitter, gotten away with the crime. We often hear of acquittals coming from docs of this nature, but how many of her contemporaries can state that their raw footage was used by the police as a means to convict a murderer? She has Madsen, on camera, saying the kind of shit one would have to wait decades to get out of a Ted Bundy or Ed Kemper months and months before that fateful voyage. Honestly, it often feels so on-the-nose at points that one might have expected that footage to have been scripted, especially with an end-of-film monologue that is horrifying to behold.

Into the Deep is a unique beast in a documentary landscape that’s more consumed than ever with the true-crime genre, and it is a must-watch for anyone even slightly curious about the events of this bizarre and tragic crime.