The Guilty. 2018. Directed by Gustav Möller. Screenplay by Möller & Emil Nygaard Albertsen.
Starring Jakob Cedergren, Jessica Dinnage, Omar Shargawi, Johan Olsen, Jacob Lohmann, & Katinka Evers-Jahnsen.
Nordisk Film Production / Det Danske Filminstitut
Rated PG. 85 minutes.
Crime / Drama / Thriller
In an age when it’s become increasingly difficult for many to see both sides of any argument, one way or another, Gustav Möller’s The Guilty blurs the lines between victim and perpetrator, as well as cop and criminal. His film touches on a host of sensitive issues, particularly for those unwilling to be critical of the police. And though this is a Danish film, it feels poignant specifically for 2019 America.
The screenplay involves a cop named Asger Holm (Jakob Cedergren). His personal predicament at work bleeds into the work itself causing one seriously difficult evening that descends further into chaos with each new sentence out of his mouth. The cop’s wound up on desk duty because of a recent incident at work, left as dispatch for emergency calls until his trial’s finished. One night a woman called Iben (voiced by Jessica Dinnage) calls in claiming she’s been abducted. Her story wraps Asger up in a tense situation and he’ll stop at nothing to save her life.
The entirety of Möller’s film concerns perception v. reality. What better way to express this theme than to have a contained story taking place in one location and focused on a single character? The physical space creates a figurative space of mental anguish, so that while Asger attempts to avert an exterior crisis he’s swallowed whole by his own internal turmoil. Everything he experiences in the space of 85 minutes is a reflection of himself, as well as the police as an institution, laying bare one man’s prejudices while exposing an entire system’s glaring flaws.
All the action, because of the screenplay’s structure, is filtered through Asger, coming to the audience indirectly. Unlike a film like Brad Anderson’s The Call starring Halle Berry, The Guilty doesn’t cut away to the actual action whatsoever, not even in brief cuts. Asger is our barometer for the suspense and tension of the plot(s). In this sense, the audience is Asger: we exist in his headspace, hanging on every last word and the inflection in his voice and the voices on the other end of the phone, listening to a situation unfold during which one wrong word could mean death.
Most interesting is the call Asger struggles with over the course of the night makes him question his own morality. He takes an introspective journey while on the call, and this is mirrored visually in the set. He begins out on the floor with other operators, not unlike the typical call centre setting with other desks surrounding him. It’s more an open space than most call centres with cublices, allowing no real privacy whatsoever. The further into the call Asger gets he retreats into his own fears and inner moral debate, so the setting changes slightly. He retreats to another room, a more private space where he’s alone— he closes the blinds and cuts himself off entirely once inside. Finally, when everything comes to a head and Asger’s story is about to be revealed in full to the viewer, he emerges from the dark room where he’s momentarily bathed in red light back onto the main floor again. This move is symbolic of a new willingness to face the truth, whereas before, while he plummeted further inward mentally, he was trying to hide from it. He not only confesses his own crime to Iben over the phone, he does so in front of his fellow officers, offering total transparency rather than be obscured behind the thin blue line. Just as the call reflects Asger and his moral choices, the physical environment of the story’s setting reflects his mental process.
Asger’s situation illustrates how much more serious it is for a cop to let their personal life and prejudices affect their day to day job. Early on, he shows casual neglect of people in the Red Light District. First he blames a man for his own overdose (“But it‘s your own fault, isn‘t it?”) showing no empathy for an addict possibly dying in the street. Not long after he takes a call from a man who’s been robbed by a sex worker, and, again, displays little to no care for a victim. The scary, real life implication is police can pick and choose who to protect at their own discretion, despite society’s hopes of neutral policing. Asger sees no one as a victim, only himself. This is indicative of a larger problem within the state structure of law enforcement. All too often the narrative of police shootings turn the officer into a victim rather than the person on the receiving end of their deadly justice. (There’s no shortage of these stories in America.) It isn’t until much later we come to see how deep Asger’s hypocrisy runs, when we figure out he’s been accused of shooting an unarmed man in the line of duty.
Asger represents the hypocrisy of the repressive state apparatus (RSA). They stand above us as citizens handing down judgement – many times fatal judgement at the end of a gun for people of colour – while they themselves either escape it altogether or refuse self-awareness about their own prejudices. He’s killed a man in cold blood yet passes judgement on others without knowing all the facts, jumping to conclusions out of heated emotion. He’s supposed to represent the law and the law’s meant to be without bias. At one point he screams at the man he believes responsible for what turns out to be Iben’s crime: “You should be fucking executed.” This is the defining moment where the thin veil of ‘innocent until proven guilty’ erodes— people complain about the court of public opinion when it’s the men with guns whose judgement ought to truly be feared. In the end, Asger realises his (and the state’s) mistakes, forcing him to confront the ugliness of his shooting. He’s forced to admit to himself Iben’s crime was one of insanity, whereas his was one of power and privilege.
Sometimes the one-location-style film can bore if its story and plot(s) aren’t tight. Möller does well by putting the audience right in Asger’s shoes. Just as Asger receives information second-hand, not there to experience the actual events like all 911 dispatchers must do over the phone, so does the audience get the information second-hand through Asger. We’re sucked into his emergency call as much as he is, and part of the surprise during the climax is we’re equally as shocked by Iben’s revelation as Asger. This sense of personal involvement, along with the headspace Möller creates with the set paralleling Asger’s psychological state, keeps the viewer deeply involved from the first scene to the last.
The screenplay by Emil Nygaard and Möller is an exploration of bias and prejudice aiming to expose a crucial point about societal trust in law enforcement: cops are just people as fallible as the rest of us. That’s in no way meant to excuse them. The strongest message here is, those who take up the mantle of protector in our society must be held to a higher standard, by citizens and themselves. We’re not meant to pity the police officer who shoots and kills an unarmed young man, and we’re certainly not meant to accept capital punishment by first responders as a by-product of a dangerous job. Although Möller’s film is a thrilling ride, it also has a critical perspective needed more in fiction. When so many films and TV shows want to glorify the cop lifestyle, or sympathise a little too smug, The Guilty displays no fear in facing the ugly truth with genuine honesty.