Gustav Möller’s feature debut, The Guilty, is a gripping, single-room thriller about an emergency services operator, Asger, who gradually experiences a moral crisis. The film quickly establishes that Asger has a troubling secret and a court date the following day. As we are introduced to him, Asger is coasting through the final hour of his shift, getting ready to clock out and go home. He’s just about to disconnect from his final call, assuming it a misdial, when he realizes the woman on the other end of the line is being kidnapped. The tension rapidly builds over the course of the film’s economic, eighty-five minute running time, as Asger scrambles to assist the woman from the confines of his dispatch center, unintentionally setting off a chain of events that will threaten the lives of the people on the other end of the lines, and possibly seal his own fate.
The Guilty explores themes of personal bias and prejudices; the film’s many plot twists will continually recontextualize the information Asger has and the assumptions he makes based on that information. As a single-room thriller, a lot depends on Jakob Cedergren, the actor playing Asger, to carry the entire film. He’s terrific, delivering a sturdy, starkly pitched performance that slowly cracks and crumbles in subtle and believable ways. Outside of a few other officers in the dispatch center, most of whom have no speaking lines, the rest of the cast appear only as voices piped through Asger’s headset. Here, the performances can be inconsistent, but the key roles remain strongly acted. Jessica Dinnage, who plays Iben, the woman who calls Asger while being kidnapped, is the standout. Most of the film’s big moments depend on her performance, and she hits the right notes from start to finish.
The directing is sharp. Möller builds tension with a steady hand, and subtly uses light and color to modulate mood as the narrative unfolds. Asger closing the blinds and casting the back half of the film in deep shadows, as he stumbles blindly into a seemingly hopeless situation, is simple yet evocative filmmaking—and also cleverly punctuated with one of the film’s most memorable shots, featuring the one and only use of slow-motion. The blue light of his smartphone plays off the other light sources, providing effective contrast throughout. And as the final plot twists are revealed, Asger unleashes his anger on the objects around him, smashing equipment while the entire room is drenched in a furious red light.
But the real strength of the film is the sound. As the action occurs entirely in one room, the sounds coming from the various phones are the only connection to the outside world and the unfolding story. The ambiance of cars rushing by on the street, of rain and windshield wipers, of the low chatter and clinking glasses of a pub, help to visualize myriad settings. Even more impressively, action scenes, including a highway arrest on a rainy road, play out entirely through Asger’s headset audio, and the combination of sound and Cedergren’s performance brings these moments to life in powerful and evocative ways.
Smartly, Möller’s attention to detail on the soundtrack doesn’t always favor realism. Details are heightened or muted to guide the audience’s attention, and as with the visual direction, audio cues are sometimes manipulated in expressive ways to communicate more emotionally visceral moments. At one point, as Iben describes the calm feelings she experiences at an aquarium, the soundscapes are completely removed and the camera tightens on Asger, eliciting an intimate and serene sensation. At another point, the vibrating ringtone of Asger’s smartphone is blown up to sound like bombs dropping on Asger’s head, sending him reeling with the most recent set of plot revelations.
Asger will eventually reveal the crime he has carefully attempted to bury, and it’s a moment that will play differently for audiences in America than Denmark, and affect the way the film is received over here. The socio-political realities of Denmark are necessarily different from that of America, but I imagine American audiences will take umbrage with the film’s depiction of police officers and corruption. The film, by nature of its single-room setting, is hermetic. It is non-specific in the details of the corruption on display, and offers no insight into the institutional and systemic realities of Denmark’s police force; as such, it would be easy to project American politics onto the text, even if they don’t particularly map. (The only reference to the larger social fabric of the film’s setting is a brief moment in which Asger confesses he doesn’t eat pork, and Iben asks, in an almost accusatory way, if he’s a Muslim.)
This is the weakest aspect of the film. The Guilty remains trapped within the walls of its dispatch center, a laser-focused character study that ultimately has little to do with the outside world and frankly feels a little unbelievable. Some of the film’s plot contrivances are forgivable, given the design of the narrative and the way the pathology of Asger and the assumed kidnapper hold up mirrors to each other; amusingly, it’s the idea that a cop might actually reckon with his own wrongdoings and experience a moral crisis that feels hilariously far-fetched in this climate. But just as the final shot was about to cut to black, I also found myself thinking about something Johnnie To said during a Q&A for Drug War, in response to a question about his unrealistic depiction of police officers. To admitted he was something of an idealist, and the way he depicts the police in his films is not a reflection of how he sees them, but an image of how he believes they should be. The Guilty is firmly rooted in such genre trappings while playing at real world concerns, never quite earning its optimism.
This is to say, it’s a decent thriller, not a great one. The material is familiar, but well executed. It echoes films like Locke and The Call; a couple at my screening were also comparing it to Phone Booth on the way out. The Guilty is Denmark’s submission to the 91st Academy Awards in the category of Best Foreign Language Film. As an Oscar submission, it is perhaps a safe choice, a sharp thriller with a strong central performance and just a dash of political relevance. It’s the kind of high concept film one could imagine Hollywood remaking about two years from now, and not for lack of its own examples of the genre. I’ll go ahead and give this a recommendation. As a genre exercise, the film’s lack of a broader or more specific context is sometimes a strength; it would invariably lend itself to a more politically charged American remake, and that is precisely where I see a potential Hollywood version fumbling.