He Killed 15 Men and Boys and Had Sex With Their Corpses
The eye-opening miniseries “Des,” premiering Oct. 15 on Sundance Now, features David Tennant as Dennis Nilsen, a serial-killing Scotsman who terrorized 1980s London.
Arguably the most difficult facet of prosecuting a serial killer case concerns the issue of insanity, since anyone who commits unspeakable atrocities must, in some respect, be out of his or her mind—and thus potentially innocent of premeditation, or able to know right from wrong. That question was essential in the trial of Dennis Nilsen, a Scottish-born resident of London who, in early 1983, was arrested after human remains were discovered in the drains of the house at 23 Cranley Gardens where he was renting a flat. A subsequent investigation uncovered more human body parts, and once a positive ID of a victim was made, he confessed to killing a grand total of 15 individuals whose names he couldn’t totally remember, but who were all young men, many of them drug addicts and/or living on the streets.
A three-part miniseries that debuts Oct. 15 on Sundance Now (following its U.K. premiere last month), Des recounts this particularly grisly chapter in British history, focusing on the enigma that was Nilsen, here played by David Tennant with an intellectual chilliness and blankness that practically screams “banality of evil.” With his bangs combed over his forehead, his face decorated by round glasses, and his thin frame covered by sports jackets and button-down shirts, Tennant eerily resembles the real-life Nilsen. It’s his demeanor, however, that truly leaves a lasting impression. At once talkative and cagey, introspective and remote, helpful and antagonistic, he’s an inscrutably monstrous figure—one who’s upfront about the fact that he did the foul deeds of which he’s accused, but who says that he’s not sure why. Because, as he claims, he’s not confident he fully knows himself.
Comprehension is central to Des, which is based on the 1985 non-fiction book Killing for Company by Brian Masters, who appears in writer Luke Neal and director Lewis Arnold’s television series as a main character embodied by Jason Watkins as a well-to-do gay author transfixed by the homicidal fiend. After penning a letter to Nilsen, Masters convinces the suspect to take part in interviews for a tome that will strive for an “objective” portrait of his life and crimes. Masters’ stated reason for doing so is that he believes there’s value in comprehending (versus “understanding”) why this killing spree took place, and how a man like Nilsen came to exist. Moreover, as he explains to his partner, he thinks it’s necessary for a gay man to tell this tale—presumably because by doing so, he’ll avoid demonizing Nilsen’s homosexuality as an intrinsic component of his sociopathy.
Masters’ aims are ostensibly sound, but Des doesn’t quite achieve them, less because of intention than because of capability. Put simply, Tennant’s Nilsen is unsettling precisely because he’s unknowable, which prevents the series from attaining the sort of deeper knowledge it (and Masters) covets. In place of that insight, what it delivers is somewhat less compelling drama about the investigation into Nilsen’s crimes by Detective Chief Inspector Peter Jay (Daniel Mays), beginning with the discovery of Nilsen’s clogged drains. From the outset, Jay is convinced that Nilsen is telling the truth about the number of his victims. His problem, though, is twofold: determining that there are 15 distinct victims, and identifying them so Nilsen can be charged for their murder.
Complicating that mission is the fact that Nilsen is a smart and manipulative fiend. With surprising candor, he owns up to various sordid details about his atrocities, including his fondness for spending days on end in the admiring company of his corpses, which he’d position in armchairs and converse with (not to mention get sexual gratification from)—at least when he wasn’t boiling their heads in pots on his stove. The contrast between Tennant’s nondescript exterior and the insanity lurking behind his inexpressive eyes is Des’ prime allure. And it’s made even more intriguing by his character’s sudden outbursts over his lack of proper treatment at the hands of the police, and his eventual decision to plead not guilty to homicides to which he’s already confessed—a legal strategy predicated on his desire for a jury to decide whether he was really cognizant of his actions (which he says he barely recalls), or perpetrated them in a fit of blind impulsive rage.
Whether Nilsen is a psycho with a fuzzy grasp of reality, or an interest in getting away with his offenses through canny management of the press and legal system, remains unclear for long stretches of Des, providing it with a modicum of suspense despite Nilsen’s well-known judicial fate. Much of the credit for that tension goes to Tennant, whose stern countenance speaks volumes about Nilsen’s coldness. His unfathomable cruelty is hard to shake.
It’s unfortunate, then, that Des can’t surround its void-like villain with more fully realized supporting players. While the series opens with Mays’ DCI Jay returning his ex-wife’s belongings to her best friend—and pleading with her to help him see his kids again—it never revisits this thread. Moreover, aside from that obligatory personal-life tidbit, it imagines him as a standard-issue law-enforcement crusader intent on getting justice for Nilsen’s victims. Watkins’ Masters is similarly rendered in two-dimensional terms; almost everything we learn about him is conveyed in either cursory snippets or soundbite-y statements of purpose, neither of which provide a clear idea of what he’s thinking at a moment’s notice, what’s driving him onward in his endeavor, or why he eventually came to see the light about his devious subject.
Des’ restraint is consequently its greatest asset and its biggest shortcoming, allowing it to avoid easy answers (or tawdry sensationalism—its graphic elements are described in relatively brief and clinical fashion), and yet preventing it from more effectively getting under one’s skin. That duality extends to its form, marked by sharply economical direction (full of expressive compositions) and superficial scripting. The result is a moderately engaging entry in the ever-expanding serial-killer thriller subgenre, notable primarily for its unique post-capture investigative angle and Tennant’s superb portrayal of a madman with a bottomless capacity for depravity.