By Peg Aloi
The Investigation is a slow-burning thriller that fuses the gravity of a documentary with the darkness of a complex murder mystery.
Perhaps you learned of the death of Swedish journalist Kim Wall the way I did, on social media in August of 2017. Wall went missing shortly after interviewing Danish inventor Peter Madsen on board the submarine he had built. It was initially announced that she had disappeared. I learned about the story as it developed on Twitter, as freelance writers shared the terrifying circumstances, tweet by tweet. Much was made of Wall’s freelancer status and her not having the resources to bring a crew or at least a camera person along for the interview. New facts emerged on an almost daily basis, each new detail bringing more dread and horror.
The case also sparked rumors and speculation, including the appearance of self-proclaimed witnesses who claimed they saw Wall with her killer at a bar in Copenhagen. There was gossip that they had been involved in a sexual relationship. Wall’s boyfriend reported her missing; Madsen claimed that he dropped her off safely. But she never made it home. When news began to spread of suspected foul play, the inventor sank the submarine. Police scrambled to raise the sub to search for evidence. Madsen announced that Wall had had an accident and he “buried her at sea.” As the days went by, more gruesome and shocking evidence was discovered. Madsen continued to alter his story; he was eventually charged and convicted of murder.
Despite widespread awareness of the outcome of this well-known case, most of the public knows little about how the police gathered enough evidence to prove Madsen’s guilt. The Investigation, helmed by writer-director Tobias Lindholm (The Hunt, A Hijacking), is a slow-burning thriller that fuses the gravity of a documentary with the darkness of a complex murder mystery. Unfolding across six episodes, the HBO Max series chronicles the inside story of the police investigation, which is helmed by Copenhagen police chief Jens Møller. (Søren Malling, also seen in the popular Danish series The Killing, which was remade for American television.)
Jens begins investigating Wall’s disappearance just as another case has ended, resulting in a failure to convict a known murderer. Nearing the end of his career, the police chief is so determined to solve the crime and find justice that the investigation becomes a full-on obsession, to the detriment of his family life. In particular, Jens pulls away from his adult daughter, who has always found her father to be too consumed by his work. On Jens’s days off he goes duck hunting and muses on the case. His assistant Maibritt (Laura Christensen) is deeply drawn in as well: she spends long nights poring over the evidence, which results in an important break in the case. Other officers on the team respect Jens’s dedication and defer to his insistence; he pushes the police diving team, exhausted from weeks of searching, to keep looking for Wall’s body, the crucial evidence that would guarantee the killer’s conviction.
Perhaps the most intriguing artistic conceit of The Investigation is the decision to not portray Kim Wall or Peter Madsen in the story. And to refrain from dramatizing the crime or its aftermath. Despite these omissions. there is no shortage of drama, horror, or suspense. Each episode ends with a brilliantly underplayed moment of discovery that moves the investigation forward. The work of the police and the forensics teams is portrayed as pragmatic but driven by passion. Jens’s determination to procure justice for Wall inspires his team when days pass by mired in frustration and delay.
Viewers get a sense of Wall’s life from her parents, Ingrid and Joachim Wall, played by veteran Swedish actors Pernilla August (Britt-Marie Was Here) and Rolf Lassgård (A Man Called Ove). Their grief is buttoned-up but intense; Ingrid quietly demands that Jens find her daughter, while Joachim, a former diver, offers to help the police chief arrange for assistance from expert divers. In one of The Investigation‘s most absorbing sequences, one of the divers arranges to borrow corpse-sniffing dogs from Sweden to help find the woman’s body. As time passes — and a conviction seems less and less likely — Wall’s parents become resigned, choosing to honor their daughter’s existence in positive ways. A scene where they describe her work on nuclear waste pollution in the Marshall Islands comes off as both sad and redemptive. We feel how much has been lost by her death, but also how full and vibrant her life was. Oddly, the woman’s humanity is powerfully conveyed through both the grief and remembrance of her parents and the dogged efforts of the police and attorneys. The Investigation reminds us that our legacy lives on in the memories of those who value, love, and honor us. And it is also a chilling cautionary tale that spotlights what it means to work and exist as a woman in the world, ever vulnerable to violence at the hands of men.
Peg Aloi is a former film critic for the Boston Phoenix and member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. She taught film studies in Boston for over a decade. She writes on film, TV, and culture for web publications like Vice, Polygon, Bustle, Mic, Orlando Weekly, Crooked Marquee, and Bloody Disgusting. Her blog “The Witching Hour” can be found at themediawitch.com.