The sparse and stripped down Danish thriller The Guilty will likely earn favourable comparisons to similarly minded efforts like Locke and The Call, but this single room drama about a disgraced police officer’s last chance for moral redemption will leave viewers riveted from start to finish with ease. A just winner of an audience award at Sundance earlier this year, the debut feature from Danish director and co-writer Gustav Möller is the type of motion picture that will stick in the memory for quite some time. It tells the viewer about intense events more than it shows them, but it tells just enough to paint an evocative, unsettling, and nerve wracking thriller that’s unfolding in the mind of the protagonist and the viewer with the similarly terrifying ambiguity.
Danish police officer Anders Holm (Jakob Cedergren) has been demoted as a disciplinary measure following a controversial shooting in the line of duty. It’s the day before an important court appearance, and Anders is working what he desperately hopes to be his last shift answering calls at an emergency services centre. Not long before his final shift is about to end, and already deeply annoyed after answering calls from people who got mugged in the red light district, took too much speed, or picked fights with nightclub bouncers, the judgmental and surly Anders gets a call with life or death stakes.
Iben (voiced by Jessica Dinnage) has been abducted by someone close to her. Unable at first to say exactly the nature of the abduction or where she’s being taken to thanks to the kidnapper’s positioning closely within earshot, Iben can only speak in riddles and clues to assist Anders in getting her help. Almost immediately, Anders becomes obsessed with trying to help the caller, going above and beyond the duty of a call centre operator and letting his police officer instincts take over. While Anders is trying to help, he starts learning that the case at hand is far more complex than the driven former officer realizes, and over time he might be doing more harm than good.
The Guilty takes only ten minutes to get going and unfolds more or less in real time. Möller never leaves the call centre, frequently showcasing Cedergren’s imposing frame (who looks very credibly like a police officer) in close-ups throughout every sequence and movement. The majority of The Guilty is told through the audio we hear through Anders’ headset and close-ups on Anders’ increasingly worried, frantic, and distressed visage. It has often been said that watching people talking on the phone in movies is one of the most dire and boring things screenwriters and directors could incorporate into their movies. The people who think that’s true across the board need to see this film. While The Guilty isn’t a film that needs more direction or flash than absolutely necessary, it stays compelling throughout thanks to Cedergren’s dynamic performance and a razor sharp script from Möller and co-writer Emil Nygard Albertsen.
Inspired by a real life jumping off point where a kidnap victim was able to be freed by speaking to a call centre worker via code, The Guilty paints vivid pictures of traumatic events without actually showing them. Everything on the other end of Anders’ headset is told through telling pauses, sketched out via the detailed questions being asked, and by actions that can only be heard and not glimpsed by the person taking the calls. Such an approach forces the viewer to draw their own conclusions as to what’s going on, placing them firmly in the shoes of Möller’s flawed protagonist. Anders’ isn’t a likable person throughout much of the film, but the empathy and questions that he has towards everything that’s happening just out of his reach and ability to help is vividly relatable.
The Guilty functions not only as a twisty mystery, but also as a subtle, yet remarkably in-depth character study that gives Cedergren plenty of weighty material. From this single call for help, the audience learns more about Anders than the narrow minded officer knows about himself. His desire to seek out justice at any cost and to not leave until the job is finished certainly seems heroic and admirable at the outset, but Möller and Cedergren are careful to show all the ways this scenario could go horrifically wrong. Anders is quick to make dangerous assumptions about the victim and her captor. He’s driven to provoking the kidnapper into fits of rage and uncertainty, which is an approach that could easily backfire. He’s constantly calling in favours from those around him to speed up the investigation, trampling on the work that should be done by the officers tasked with ending the situation. He’s constantly stepping on toes, and he feels entitled to solve this case because, come tomorrow, it might be the last one he ever works on. He’s developed tunnel vision. Nothing matters outside this single call, and he’s willing to micromanage everything to see that it gets done to his rigid set of specifications. All of it is thoroughly rich and fascinating.
The Guilty is the kind of film that packs a remarkable amount of depth into just under ninety minutes, both in terms of plot and character. It’s a masterful bit of storytelling that lets its separate strands commingle for emotional effect, and not for narrative trickiness. Each half of the story has its own twists, but the journey throughout The Guilty isn’t to uncover some sort of grand, complex conspiracy that will tie back to the hero’s journey. It’s a film about a Type-A personality made to feel helpless and confused for what might be the first time in their life. It builds to a climax that’s as tense and nerve wracking as any cat and mouse game or bullet ridden shootout could ever hope to be, and Möller accomplishes it all by never leaving the same two rooms of a bland looking office building.
Some might scoff and call The Guilty a film that’s been built around a purposefully low budget gimmick (and it does admittedly boast a handful of predictable plot elements that should be obvious to attentive viewers), but few films that trot out such deceptively simple storytelling gambits are rarely as slick and engaging as Möller’s work here. It’s not surprising that Denmark has selected it as their candidate for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar this year. It’s that good.
The Guilty opens at TIFF Bell Lightbox on Friday, October 19, 2018. It’s available everywhere on iTunes and VOD on October 23.
Check out the trailer for The Guilty: