The Guilty: But Who’s Really…? by Scott Nye
The police are very much at the fore of American cinema this year, with at least three films – Blindspotting, The Hate U Give, and Monsters and Men – grappling with the frequent murders officers commit. But the problem of assumed power doesn’t go away with some borders; police are everywhere, and certain types of people tend to sign up. The new Danish film The Guilty confronts just such a person in a setting that offers no escape.
When we meet Asger (Jakob Cedergren), there’s been an unspecified-but-clearly-serious discipline issue (serious enough that reporters are calling him about it), and is cooling his heels at emergency dispatch until his trial comes. He mostly regards it poorly, having clearly pissed off all the regulars who work there and just barely containing his disinterest in the various drunks and complainers who call his line to get a bit of assistance with minor scrapes. Sometime before this movie started, Asger clearly had a very heated argument with a sergeant who demanded his gun and badge, and he hasn’t cooled down much since.
Until, finally, he gets a call he feels worthy of his supreme talents – a woman (an extraordinary vocal performance by Jessica Dinnage) is a passenger in a van against her will. Her husband, from whom she is separated, is driving it. Their kids are still at home her home alone, and she’s pretending to talk to them as she talks to Asger. Her husband can’t know what’s really going on. So with a limited ability to draw any information from her, Asger must deduce where they are, where they’re going, and who they are before they arrive and somebody does something drastic.
So the film proceeds, in real time, remaining in this one office, as he does Whatever It Takes to see justice done. He is extremely clever, and Cedergren doesn’t let Asger overly relish his victories. They seem natural, the product of years of instinct and practice. He keeps the adrenaline boiling so that when Asger inevitably explodes, it truly seems like he can’t help himself, that whatever lead to the incident that has him on probation, it probably felt to him like an out-of-body experience.
And this is where dealing with the film gets a little dicey. The Guilty is, in essence, a very good thriller – first-time feature director Gustav Möller has an excellent eye for the visual triggers that can set us off (the light signaling an incoming call, the rhythm of the automated dialing tone, the drastic change in lighting when Asger destroys a room he’s working in), and the pacing of the shots develops and sticks to a steady rhythm that ratchets up the tension through sheer repetition. You can tap your foot to it. But, end of the day, there’s a case that Asger is working to solve, and the tension is drawn from whether or not he can solve it. Thematically and morally, the question also becomes whether or not he should.
Naturally, we want a good end for this poor family. But if Asger can find that for them, that in some ways justifies his methods, which in turn might be designed to “redeem” the fact that he has, you know, ruined someone’s life in the supposed line of duty. The particulars of how Asger comes to resolve himself ahead of his trial are vague enough that you could kind of have it both ways – if you want to tell yourself he’s going to take some measure of responsibility for what he’s done, you can, but there’s nothing firm about that in the film either.
The Guilty is a nicely vague title, the kind that by its very nature suggests the preface “but who’s really…?” And Möller wisely folds notions of self-examination into the call itself, so that continual confrontation with one’s actions is very much in the fabric of the film. But the way society deals with the crimes described on one end of the phone is very different from how they deal with crimes committed by the other. Whatever inner peace and self-resolve Asger can find will be easy to find reflected back at him. Societies regularly welcome back powerful sinners; poor anonymous ones tend to fare worse.
As noted, this all remains somewhat noncommittal, which is probably for the best. It provokes these questions without resolving itself too much, though the ending seeks a sort of comfort the rest of the film doesn’t suggest is even possible. No matter our sins, we all have to go home at the end of the day; we all have to sleep sometime.