The Guilty (Den skyldige) all takes place in a tiny little office. The office of the Danish emergency hotline, to be exact. I’ve read numerous reviews surprised at how they manage to built tension in such a small space, ignoring the fact film history teaches us that filming in enclosed spaces is often the surest way of creating tension. Ensuring you have to rely on the script as well as the ingenuity of the cameraman – and not to rely on cheap shots from far away to describe things the leading characters can’t know. Most of us are only in one place at the time, more often then not for more then an hour and a half – so therefore this sub-genre does by its very nature come closer to our everyday reality then most other genres.
Because this is a surprisingly big sub-genre. Hitchcock did a few of those films and you can also mention Die Hard (introducing us to yet another sub-genre, Die Hard on a bus (for Speed), etc.), 12 Angry Man and Tape among others – and then you have a sub-genre to that, where you have an enclosed space and only one character for most if not all of the film. The coffin drama Buried remains the best example, but one could also mention films like 127 Hours (even if that one cheats quite a bit) and Locke, but the latter is probably the closest example we have to The Guilty, because both focus on a man who’s on the phone for most of the film. The problem with Locke was that even if it was well made the dilemma of the leading character was so uninteresting you didn’t really care much about it, so otherwise capable attempts of building tension fell flat.
The Guilty covers weightier things – yet you also connect strongly to the more mundane aspects of it. Our protagonist is Asger Berg, a police officer who for some reason has been sent to this place as a sort of detention. He dreams of being back on the street – but he’s under orders to stay inside. He’s not completely alone, there are others who work in this office – but there’s few of them and they hardly get more then a total of 5-10 sentences during the entire film, he might as well be alone. There are other important characters, but we don’t see any of them, they’re just voices on the phone. The mundanity of the situation rings true, how the machines keep him occupied, keep him inside – half the film he’s about to leave but the machines keep him there. I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in sometimes going for a planned walk in a nice weather a few hours late because you must always finish one more thing your computer demands of you.
But Asger is a cop and therefore the problems he deals with are less mundane then for most of us. At least I assume that’s the reason they make a lot more films about cops then film journalists. Yet police work has its mundane aspects and Asger seems to detest that part. A hooker robs a man in the red-light district, a girl falls of her bike and injures herself, a junkie fears he might have overdosed. Yet he’s the sinning cop who always throws the first rock before he asks more, he seems to think it’s mainly his role to help the saints but not the sinners. Sadly for him, saints don’t often interact much with the police.
This arrogance, manifesting itself both in his prejudice towards addicts and his assumption that most people have themselves to blame (assuming, for example, that the girl on the bike must be drunk and that the man in the red-light district had been doing something shady) seems to be way too common among cops, perhaps a weariness that is hard to avoid, something that I’ve witnessed myself and inspired this little short story here, and also something well shown in this article about a teenager with diabetes being treated like a junkie (only in Icelandic, sorry).
A Hero or a Servant?
Soon enough though he gets a phone call that changes everything. A kidnapping, finally a proper crime! Something befitting hero-cop Asger Holm! Yet the problem is he’s stuck to a desk and a phone, while other cops are on the road trying to locate the kidnapper. This division of labour and all those protocols is something he struggles with – and we’re sympathetic to his views, isn’t the protocol unnecessarily rigid, isn’t he the one that knows most about the case? So he goes deep into the case, does a lot more than his requires – and seems to be solving it on his own while he’s colleagues on the road seem to be getting nowhere with it.
But when the case starts becoming more complicated, we realise that many of those protocols are there for a reason and Asger’s unbound enthusiasm is both a weakness and a strength. Meanwhile we also start putting the puzzle together as of why he’s in this police version of detention to begin with.
Because Asger became a cop to become a hero, not to become a public servant. That’s why he’s struggles to cooperate and why he struggles to engage with the more mundane part of the job, that’s why he so often goes too far. He also has a big problem with trusting his colleagues – and that feeling is often mutual, he’s under investigation after all. It’s perhaps helpful to imagine a Mission: Impossible film where computer wiz Benji would always jump into action and away from the computer at the first hint of trouble, instead of just trusting Ethan Hunt with the hero stuff. That would of course end up in a big mess, but then again, Ethan Hunt’s adventures really should end up in a big mess anyway, since he always bypasses protocol and good practice – yet he inhabits a world where always gets away with that – Asger is not so lucky.
We are by Asger’s side the whole time and know as much – or as little – as he does about the case he’s trying to solve, even if we’re in the dark about his past. For that reason, we’re likely to make the same mistakes as he does, make the same false assumptions based on very limited information. He is certainly arrogant – but at the end of the day a well-meaning cop – unfortunately a cop who doesn’t have everything under control – even if he usually thinks so himself.
Text: Ásgeir H Ingólfsson