The latest in a recent string of cinematic explorations regarding the relationship between the police and the policed comes from an unlikely source: Denmark.
The Guilty, the country’s submission to this year’s Academy Awards, joins an ever-increasing list of new movies pertaining to the subject of police brutality. Other 2018 treatises touching upon this topic — The Hate U Give, Monsters and Men, Blindspotting, even BlackKklansman — cover it largely from the victims’ POVs. They’re also more dialectical both in their scopes and approaches, striving to paint as many sides and dimensions as possible onto their sociopolitical canvasses.
The Guilty hones in on merely one of the cogs in this system. At first, you wouldn’t even know this seeming protagonist is even related to the discourse concerning police negligence. Sure, this dispatcher in charge of responding to 911 calls is noticeably curt to a few telephoners near the beginning of the movie, treating them as less than worthy of human sympathy because they indulged in societally-prescribed taboos that make them deserving of whatever punishment they’re dialing to rectify.
These early signs become indicators foreshadowing the ultimate narrative and moral twist. Since he’s merely a telephone operator, none of his judgements can be deeper than knee-jerk reactions. He believes he’s capable of deciphering enough of a situation to evaluate it based on little more than snippets of voices.
And this arrogant assumption eventually blows up in his face on a much larger, and more devastating, scale. The initial conceit of the movie appears to be its communicative style: like a bottle-episode merged with a one-man play crossed with a radio play, the camera never leaves the side of the operator, who never leaves his call center throughout the 85-minute duration. Director Gustav Möller, editor Carla Luffe Heintzelmann, cinematographer Jasper Spanning, and particularly the sound design team pull off the stunt with aplomb. But this isn’t yet another instance of style over substance; it’s style as substance.
The limiting of the means through which the filmmakers can communicate with the audience — we’re given little more than Jakob Cedergren’s performance, and what he hears — reflects the insufficient knowledge offered to cops who must make life and death decisions in a matter of seconds. By no means justifying or excusing such mistakes, The Guilty just depicts how one man keeps relying on his unverifiable instincts instead of patiently waiting to act until he confirms all the facts.
The camera rests on his face, particularly his eyes, as he attempts to piece together sounds into coherent stories, filling in the gaps as he sees fit. We the audience are just as locked into his perspective; we only see what he sees, coming to a lot of similar conclusions. The filmmakers restrict our access to total clarity in much the same way all humans are constrained by their subjective corporeality. But when the police overstep these bounds, innocents end up dead.
Only when Cedergren’s character faces his hamartia by admitting he acted rashly does he end up saving anyone; this confession to someone literally on the brink appears to persuade her to step off the ledge.
On its surface, the title speaks to the difficulties of determining the guilty in any situation. Yet it’s also an indictment, because Cedergren’s cop is guilty of committing the same crime twice: once in person — offscreen, a year before the events of the movie take place — and once removed from the first person, as shown here. Yet even when he needs to rely on third party accounts, he still convinces himself he knows the correct course of action from the ear alone.
When will he, and all others of his vocation, learn to think twice?