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HBO’s true crime drama The Investigation is slow and frustrating on purpose

HBO’s dramatized series uses its methodical pace to fully confront the murder of Kim Wall.

The Investigation
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

Perhaps the most famous moment of Jaws is the “bigger boat” moment — the scene in which we, the audience, after spending the whole film getting only glimpses and implications, finally see the shark. It’s presented casually, almost as an anticlimax, which is why it’s so effective when the shark’s humongous head pops out of the water and we realize just how big it must be.

In the first episode of HBO’s The Investigation, a six-part Danish dramatized true crime series whose final episode airs Monday, March 8 at 10pm, there’s a similar moment but in reverse: After spending a fruitless episode trying and failing to locate a missing journalist, Copenhagen investigators finally raise the sunken submarine where she was last seen. As its narrow shape emerges from the water, it’s impossible not to note how small and cramped it truly is. Even if audiences don’t know exactly what happened on board, the effect of seeing the submarine up close tells you that whatever it was, it was grim and claustrophobic.

As with Jaws, we’re shown just enough to imagine much worse — in this case, to imagine Kim Wall’s unspeakable final moments.

The 2017 murder of Swedish journalist Kim Wall is one of the most haunting true crime cases in recent memory. If you worked in New York media four years ago, there was a high chance you knew someone who had worked with Wall. She was a vibrant, award-winning freelancer who reported complex investigations all over the world, often fearlessly navigating unfamiliar regions.

That facet of her life served to heighten the irony around her death: Two days before she was about to move across the world to begin yet another adventure, she arranged a last-minute interview in Copenhagen with a man who should have been an easy subject: Peter Madsen, a high-powered tech guru and inventor. Madsen was part of Wall’s home region. He was a renowned public figure; she was a renowned, well-connected journalist. It should have been her safest assignment yet.

Instead, in a premeditated plan, Madsen took Wall aboard his tiny homemade submarine, where he brutally assaulted, tortured, murdered, and ultimately dismembered her, throwing her remains overboard. Astonishingly, her murder had nothing to do with her profession; she was nothing more than an object to Madsen — a victim of his sadistic sexual fantasies, chosen simply because of her willingness to get on his submarine.

These are the well-known facts of a case that received international media attention, yet they’re still almost impossible to believe even years later, even with Madsen serving a life sentence for the crime. Many unanswered questions still remain about the night of Wall’s murder. That’s another thing that makes Wall’s story so unforgettable: the terrifying combination of the little we know with the horror we’re left to imagine.

It’s these gaps, these frustrating, slippery gaps, that concern The Investigation. It’s a dramatization of the investigation into Wall’s murder, a hybrid true crime narrative — a painstaking police procedural narrative built over the bones of the typical Nordic noir.

Though the show has been justifiably critically acclaimed, it’s largely flown under the public radar, and I think the hybrid format is partly why; the true crime audience, the crime procedural audience, and the Scandinoir audience don’t necessarily overlap, and the tropes of one genre don’t necessarily overlap with the others. Trying to combine them is a tricky scenario that risks denying satisfaction to any of the three audiences.

But The Investigation is mostly uninterested in crime genre tropes. And this juxtaposition of fact and fiction arguably allows The Investigation to bring its greatest storytelling asset to bear on the case of Kim Wall: pacing.

The Investigation uses its painstaking pacing to grapple with its crime

In a typical true crime dramatization — for example, Dirty John or any Lifetime movie— we meet the characters involved in the crime, and we see the buildup to it. The investigation after the fact usually belongs either to true crime documentaries or to fictional procedurals like CSI or Columbo. But The Investigation, thankfully, never shows us the crime; instead, we pick up where the investigation begins, focusing on the police whose job it is to figure out what happened on that submarine.

Wall is represented only through photographs and once, movingly, a map of all the places she’d traveled around the world. Her killer never appears on screen and is never referred to by name — he’s referred to only as “the accused” throughout. The series makes zero reference to his fame, wealth, power, and cult of personality. That might be confusing and frustrating for the viewer who’s unfamiliar with the Wall case — but true crime audiences will likely see it as a deeply cathartic and excoriating move that fits into the larger trend of true crime narratives denying killers agency over the narratives around their crimes.

The gap between different audience interpretations is one of the most intriguing aspects of The Investigation for me. The series seems to count on its audience being familiar with the case and frequently utilizes the tension between what the audience knows and what the investigators on screen don’t. If you begin the series knowing what happened to Kim Wall — as the Danish audience, for whom the case was likely inescapable national news, certainly would — the facts of the case loom over your perception of the entire series. You know, as the investigators don’t, that Madsen planned the entire event, that her remains are retrievable, that he’s lying about everything.

You know, as the investigators don’t, as they spend endless hours searching for clues and turning up empty, that there’s something to find.

The Investigation pays frequent homage to legendary Danish filmmaker Carl Dreyer both through its visual and aesthetic references and through its methodical, laborious pacing, which it uses to carry both the weight and the solemnity of a procedural police case. Dreyer’s films sometimes feel like they’re in slow-motion, so considered is the staging and so full of gravitas are the actors, and writer-director Tobias Lindholm channels that feeling here to an instrumental extreme.

Lindholm — best known to Scandinoir fans for hit political drama Borgen, to true crime fans for Mindhunter, and to other typical Vox readers for the Oscar-nominated films The Hunt (2012) and A War (2016) — makes excellent use of his cast’s ability to transmit quiet frustration in every line of their faces. By any standards, The Investigation features an all-star Danish cast, including Søren Malling, who Nordic noir buffs may recognize from Forbrydelsen and Borgen, as taciturn lead detective Jens Møller, and Pilou Asbæk (Game of ThronesEuron Greyjoy) as a weary prosecutor. As whole scenes and episodes go by without any developments in a case whose obstacles frequently seem insurmountable — how do you locate remains that have been dismembered and flung into the sea? — the cast grows visibly tenser, and Lindholm gradually rests more and more of the show’s dramatic tension on the actual, physical tension the actors seem to be holding in their bodies and faces as the investigation wears on.

The entire show, in fact, is an example of quiet frustration. You’ll be frustrated that so little is happening. You’ll be frustrated that the steps of this investigation are so painstaking yet slow. You’ll be frustrated that unlike every other crime show in existence, The Investigation forces you to sit through episode after episode of non-development, with every minor development rapidly leading to a setback rather than a gain. It’s the dramatic equivalent of watching Sisyphus lose his footing or a football team winding up at fourth down — forever.

But this is where The Investigation also becomes unique among Nordic noir. Because this investigation really happened: The months of searching and setbacks, the struggle to identify a motive, and every grueling harbor dive made to find Wall’s remains all really happened. Everything we already know about Wall’s murder becomes the compelling force that makes the series so watchable, even and especially when it’s most deeply bogged down in procedural details that seem to be leading nowhere.

Taken as a pure example of genre filmmaking, The Investigation is not without narrative clichés; they’re present, but not particularly of interest. We have a typical brusque detective in Møller; a family member, in this case his daughter, who’s ostracizing him because she just can’t understand why he prioritizes solving cases; and a high-profile crime that seems to be going nowhere. This is all such familiar terrain that even though these are the parts that are clearly meant to enliven The Investigation as a dramatic narrative, they threaten to ruin its gritty realism altogether.

It’s all of the stuff that’s real — the constant setbacks without any forward movement, all the things a typical dramatic series couldn’t get away with — that make The Investigation feel so atypical and so refreshing.

And this, ultimately, is the gift that the show gives to Kim Wall: It forces us to take time. Every new fact the dogged investigators manage to pry from the submarine or the sea or from the ever-changing mind of the accused is a horrifying one. Yet because the investigation itself is so slow and procedural, we’re compelled, as an audience, to mull over each new fact, to contend with what we know and what we don’t — to process that all this really happened.

This time is the least we owe to Kim Wall. I’ve been wary before of the way true crime narratives can wholly and uncritically valorize the police, and that’s definitely true of this series. But what The Investigation valorizes over and above the justice system is the importance and imperative of justice itself. At multiple points throughout the series, the head diver Lars (Henrik Birch), exhausted and wary of sending his men into the ocean to look for remains that could be virtually anywhere, tacitly indicates how fed up he is with the entire case. He never actually says it; his body language says it for him. He’s questioning whether this case is worth the effort. But the crucial thing is that he doesn’t say it. Instead, he commits, and recommits, to diving as often and as long as it takes.

Throughout The Investigation, there’s never any question that the pursuit of justice for Kim Wall is worth the effort. In most crime dramas, and even in most true crime narratives, justice is about retribution and reparations. In The Investigation, pursuing justice is a communal act of faith that ultimately becomes catharsis: a reminder of why justice is necessary, why it’s worth committing to — and why it’s worth every labored, excruciating second of our time.

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