Move over, Searching. Papa’s got a truly great single-locale thriller to cheer for this year. I approached it cautiously at first, since it’s set in a police dispatch centre, with a focus on only one officer (commandingly played by Jakob Cedergren). As a rule, I’m not here for art that seeks to valorize the police, making the institution a shining bastion of justice that we must blindly kneel for. I was afraid this one would tread that path—and, fortunately, I was wrong. Cedergren’s character is one of the more fallible cinematic creations I’ve seen this year, shirking protocol and making dubious decisions on the fly because he’s so convinced he has the right version of one story. It’s riveting to see him work with the barest of assumptions, only having voices and ambient sounds as evidence to support his theory. He thinks it’s so right that every subsequent call leaves behind an even bigger mess, until it’s so big that he can barely put things together when he realizes what actually did happen. With, presumably, years of training and experience at his disposal, he misreads and misinterprets his situation like a rookie would. And that ends up telling you a lot. No matter who you are or what you do, the fallibility of the human will always make itself present. If we’re unwilling to see that, we risk endangering more lives than just our own.
Apart from Cedergren’s great work, The Guilty boasts a near-seamless editing job from Carla Luffe—an important requirement for any film that remains stationed in one setting. Nothing ever feels stitched together from multiple takes, and this was probably helped by Cedergren’s ability to maintain a specific poise for each of his conversations, which become incrementally more frantic with each passing diegetic hour. The sound design, too, is impressively sharp, since the drama between Iben and Michael is entirely offscreen and can only be imagined with the sounds Asger hears through his headset. Moments where people on the other end of the line are walking through houses and streets are done with the maximum level of suspense, so that you end up holding your breath in the same way as Asger does. The unknown and unseen are continually being plumbed in the world outside the dispatch centre, and you wish you could see its open secrets. For confirmation, for comfort, for new realizations—for anything, really. That’s why the thriller aspect is so effective. It’s as though you’re wearing a blindfold and don’t know where to tread.
I’ll conclude by sneaking in one last bit of praise. The Guilty does a fairly good job handling its foray into mental illness. I’m still not sure it should have been made a plot twist, per se, but once it’s out in the open, I think it’s handled well. There’s an intense focus on listening and patience, without automatically passing the blame. It also makes it plain that, sometimes, this is not easy for people to do. Asger’s ashen expressions and frequent pauses make this known. To cede a terrible act to mental illness rather than to a willful act of malice takes great understanding and effort, and I appreciate that the film documents this struggle honestly. It makes the right calls in the end.