David G. Hughes and Savina Petkova on Gustav Möller’s ‘The Guilty’ (2018)
What if Dirty Harry was taken off the streets and confined to the desk of the Emergency Services helpline? How does a rogue cop who likes to do things his own way exert his self-willed executive power over the line of a telephone? The Guilty / Den Skyldige, a taut Danish thriller by Gustav Möller, uses this nifty concept as the basis for what is both an exquisite thriller-symphony in four acts and an emotionally affecting, thoughtful contemplation of moral and philosophical issues.
The Guilty can be situated in two contemporary trends: that of Scandinavian countries sieving through Hollywood tropes to find new flavours, alongside the real-time, claustrophobic tech-thrillers that we find in Phone Booth (2002), Cellular (2004), Buried (2010), Locke (2013), Eye in the Sky (2015) and the nascent ‘desktop’ film. In each example, contemporary communications technology becomes a captivating source of drama and anxiety; the phone, in particular, is exploited as a great dramatic device, one shrieking with symbolic value, for the horrisonant ring is something that demands to be answered. Fallible characters, deeply flawed and bruised men, must learn not to ignore the repressed any longer and take the call from above or beyond – the call to repentance, or consciousness.
Asger Holm, played with exceptional subtle weight by Jakob Cedergen, is our anti-hero, a man set to go to trial tomorrow over a case of alleged “self-defence” in the killing of a suspect. Bit by bit, we compose a (fragmented) portrait of who our protagonist is; we see him as rude, domineering, contemptuous, maybe even a sociopath. In one direct citation to Taxi Driver (1976), Asger stares into a dissolving tablet as the camera slowly zooms into his cracked psyche, a connection to Scorsese’s iconic exploration of misguided masculinity and deranged ‘heroism’. He soon gets a call from the damsel, a woman (Jessica Dinnage) kidnapped and looking for help. Asger appears to have a straight moral compass in his “protector” role, as adamant on saving the girl as we hope our policing services would be. Only his colleagues appear unmoved, by-the-numbers in their attitude to this dramatic event. To them, he is not so much being a hero as awkwardly unprofessional. We root for him, rage against their bureaucratic minds. But we soon being to question his mind: is he trying to be a reckless hero? Is he actually trying to save himself rather than her?
The Guilty sits somewhere between critiquing the ineptitude and inefficiency of a crime-fighting bureaucracy and understanding the practical need to disappear into such a system. But where the ethics sit remains disputable. While Dirty Harry (1971) or countless other cop thrillers in an American context, appear to condone the moral State of Exception, The Guilty, in a liberal Scandinavian fashion, remains far more ambivalent on the issue. In the end, it asks how much anyone of us can ever really know within the confines of our delusions, ignorance and narratives. Asger’s knowledge and power is limited by his physical isolation and incomplete picture, but that does not defuse his will to exert his ‘good intentions’.
The impact of The Guilty is achieved by this denial of the senses, spiralling into subconscious fears that feed off a reality more audible than material. In the lack of sight, it is said, all other senses become heightened. As the spectator is blind to the action over the phone, the suffocating ignorance allows a controlled sensuality to reign. In a distilled sound environment, the gestures, close-ups (we never get tired of Asger’s face, since it tells volumes) and a blinking red light in a darkened room, orchestrates the perfect balance for the sadomasochistic spectator. Submission to a denied visual representation is combined with active spectatorship as ethical engagement. While we jump out of our comfort zones, it’s already clear that this film does not bear the moral security of other desktop/phone thrillers.
What is an imagined space? A space can have meta-physicality, meaning that it can transcend physical confines, and unleash its transformative life force; it is a therapeutic function of the imagination, the subconscious, and all that remains when we abandon hesitation to face the truth. Which leads us to say that underneath the nail-biting thrills and Scandi-secularism is a film brimming with religious undertones, wherein themes of guilt, confession, atonement and redemption are particularly pronounced, and the use of light and darkness leads us into the realm of theological drama. By the end of the film, it seems like a necessary sacrifice has been made: the inevitability of character’s development (or explication?) towards the realisation that Truth about the world outside is hard, if impossible, to know; but truth about himself Asger must merely admit.
That The Guilty manages to be both a thoughtful look at the dark parts of the human psyche and a salacious kidnapping thriller, all the while keeping tone and pace under strict military control, is something to be greatly praised. This is a claustrophobic thriller not only in the sense that it takes place exclusively within a small, antiseptic police office, but also within the confined prison of a fraught and conflicted conscience. Quite deliberately, the characters over the phone are less fully-fleshed autonomous characters as divergent voices of the same mind. The Guilty is a stunning dramatisation of psychological conflict.
Screened as part of BFI London Film Festival.
David G. Hughes is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Electric Ghost Magazine. He has also written for Quillette, Little White Lies, Film International, and more.
Savina Petkova is a regular contributor for Electric Ghost Magazine. She also contributes to MUBI Notebook, Photogénie, Girls on Tops, and more.