DES. Excellent David Tennant as a serial killer

Des could be seen as a pleasant surprise and a treat for those interested in the subject of serial killers.

Lukasz Budnik

31 August 2023

Based on real-life stories, the history of serial killers is a topic that is both terrifying and intriguing for filmmakers. It naturally combines many elements that are attractive to audiences, including investigations, dark secrets, playing with delicate emotions through vivid descriptions or scenes… However, the main allure in such cases lies in the personalities of the killers themselves—repulsive yet strangely fascinating. David Fincher knows this well, as do the creators of the documentary about Ted Bundy, and now the creators of Des – Lewis Arnold, Luke Neal, and Kelly Jones.

Dennis Nilsen, known as “Des” to friends, was a Scottish serial killer and necrophile who took the lives of at least twelve young men, often homeless and/or drug-addicted. He is the central figure in a three-episode miniseries on ITV, and the show revolves around the aftermath of his gruesome actions, led by Chief Inspector Peter Jay. In contrast to Fincher’s Zodiac, where the plot focused on catching the titular killer, Des starts with Nilsen’s capture and then works backward, aiming to identify his victims, whose names he doesn’t remember, yet are essential for his prosecution.

Structuring the plot in this way allowed the screenwriters to incorporate numerous dialogue scenes with Nilsen. He interacts not only with the police but also with a writer who is penning his biography. These interactions shed light on Nilsen’s past and the events that led him down a path of heinous acts, as described in the dialogues. At this point, attention is drawn to David Tennant, who portrays Nilsen and masterfully captures his mannerisms and way of speaking, without caricaturing the character but rather creating someone who simultaneously captivates and repulses. While the series doesn’t glorify Des in any way, Tennant’s performance draws viewers in, reminding them of the monstrous deeds his character committed.

While Tennant shines, the rest of the cast also impresses — Daniel Mays portrays the protagonist, Peter Jay, a character one wants to root for in his quest to uncover the victims’ identities and provide solace to their families. Just as Zodiac depicted the destructive and time-consuming nature of pursuing a killer, Des shows how seeking the victims’ identities can drain a person, in this case Jay, both professionally and personally. This balance between homicide division work and private life, or rather its absence, is a theme frequently explored in productions centered on serial killers. This exploration adds an extra layer to their cruel actions, which have a lasting impact even years later and, for the families of the victims, a lifelong one. Another key character is Brian Masters, Nilsen’s biographer, whose book serves as the basis for the script, and he serves as a means of naturally extracting information from Nilsen about his life and beliefs.

I’ve mentioned Zodiac by Fincher twice in this text, not coincidentally. It’s not only my favorite film by the director but also a favorite among productions dealing with serial killers. Watching Des, I’ve often been reminded of Zodiac, not in terms of visual style—Fincher’s is nearly incomparable—but in terms of the raw atmosphere, a sense of hopelessness, and the awareness of how an investigation impacts those involved. This is particularly evident in the final episode, during Nilsen’s trial, where Jay and his colleagues’ stress becomes palpable for the audience. It’s a shame that the creators didn’t further develop the context of London at the time, as outlined in the prologue, which would have resonated well with the victims’ narrative.

Considering the relatively understated promotional campaign for the series, Des could be seen as a pleasant surprise and a treat for those interested in the subject of serial killers or those longing for productions in the vein of Mindhunter. It’s a dark world that, paradoxically, is interesting to immerse oneself in—albeit, of course, only from the viewer’s perspective through the screen.

Łukasz Budnik

Lukasz Budnik

He loves both silent cinema and contemporary blockbusters based on comic books. He looks forward to watching movie with his growing son.

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