Sundance 2020 – Into the Deep

I had planned on seeing another film after this one, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. It would not have been fair to the other film to try to watch it while I could only think of Into the Deep. On August 10th, 2017, amateur inventor Peter Madsen brutally murdered journalist Kim Wall, who was there to do a story on him, while aboard his self-made submarine. For a year prior, filmmaker Emma Sullivan had been filming Madsen and his group of volunteers as they worked together on building a rocket to fire into space. She certainly did not expect the film she was making to have to transform like it did, but in having been there for as long as she had, she emerges as the best person to tell this story as she has all this footage and access to those around Madsen. What Sullivan creates is a fascinating, heart-wrenching and ultimately human examination of hindsight in relation to a terrible crime.

The way Sullivan puts this film together puts you in empathy with the volunteers who were working with Madsen at RML (his company) to build a rocket. You immediately see how charismatic and motivating Madsen was, you understand how these people could get so motivated to work with him to build a rocket for essentially no pay. He walks around in a camo jumpsuit like he’s Idi Amin, constantly joking and being gregarious. You get why these people around him would have a sort of cult-like reverie for him. Even three days after Wall’s disappearance, one of them is driving around, certain that they can find her and prove that Madsen dropped her off like he claimed – because what’s the alternative? You must accept that you’ve centered your life around a violent sociopath.

But then you start to see moments that give you pause. At one point he jokes that his submarine will be used to sabotage the flightpad of his competitors, but how much is he really joking? Jokes he made suddenly don’t appear so light-hearted, text messages he sent seem much more threatening now. In the wake of Madsen’s horrific act, the people who worked with him as well as Sullivan herself are forced to ask themselves difficult questions: How did we miss this? Were there signs of his sociopathy and violence we just missed? Were we just so naive? Was there anything we could have done to prevent this? There are two sort of timelines the film operates off of: before and after the murder, in order to examine how hindsight effects Sullivan and her subjects. After this, they all struggle with guilt and now see clearly what a monster Madsen was. And it all culminates into this very emotional and brave resolution where these people learn to not blame themselves for what Madsen did, and work with the prosecution to convict him. Hindsight is unforgiving, but we must learn to forgive ourselves. 

The final scene will jaw-drop you. I don’t know that anyone in that theater didn’t have some sort of stunned, shaken reaction to the final moments of the film. I cannot reveal what happens, only that it’s an interview with Madsen that completely ties the film together thematically in a shocking way. Netflix has another winner to add to their trove of true crime titles, I just hope we give this the chance we’ve given other true crime titles, because this one is special.

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