I’m still scraping my jaw off the floor. I promise this review will start in a minute. A warning ahead – if you seek out Danish film The Guilty (and I beg, BEG that you do), know that you are climbing aboard a rollercoaster with deep plummets, tense molehills, and a chilling denouement – all from a single, dark office where the only tool is a telephone. Once you board this ride, there’s no getting off. You’ll be a complete hostage for the duration of the film. And believe me, The Guilty is not afraid to take advantage. Buckle in.
In his feature film debut, Gustav Möller takes a jarring and emotional glimpse at a single shift for a a police officer on desk duty. Worse than desk duty. Asger Holm (Jakob Cedergren) has been assigned to the 911 operator room. Though not explicitly revealed upfront, we can easily gather he’s restless and not treating the job seriously. He belongs in a squad car, in the center of the action. Tonight though, he’s taking calls.
His shift starts uneventfully – a call from a man mugged while picking up a prostitute, some hooligans caught up in a bar brawl – but the night takes a complete turn when Iben calls. At first, Asger thinks it’s a prank. Iben isn’t answering his questions directly, and it is almost as if she’s speaking to another person altogether. It isn’t until her voice cracks, revealing a deep and utterly terrifying fear that the truth becomes truth to Asger (and us) – Iben has been abducted.
In a moving vehicle, with very little resources other than yes and no questions from a clearly devastated witness in the captivity and immediate presence of her assailant – Asger quickly sets his disdainful attitude aside and buckles down to get the information required for emergency dispatch and patrol officers. Only, Asger isn’t an emergency dispatch. He’s a police officer. Playing telephone tag is not in his nature. Action is.
The complete perfection of The Guilty is the venue of delivery. We are locked on Asger the entire film. We never see Iben, we never meet the increasingly irritated emergency dispatch. We must use our imaginations to conjure the despair we hear in Iben’s voice. We must assume the protocols Asger is breaking even when he isn’t being directly called out by his telephone comrades.
“The story [of The Guilty] becomes treacherous. I became a complete and utter victim to the twisted and harrowing plot.”
The Guilty is quick. A short 85 minutes – but you won’t even notice once we receive that fatefull 211 call (911, if you’re in North America). The story becomes treacherous. I became a complete and utter victim to the twisted and harrowing plot. Iben’s situation grows utterly complicated and capital “T” Tense. We have nothing to do but wait for another phone call.
In the end, The Guilty explores so much beyond the four walls of our setting. The film becomes an examination of the well intentioned, and the murky nature of good and evil. Whenever you involve humanity, a variable exists. No perfect system, no perfect protocol, no perfect situation can sustain smoothly with humans at the helm. We are at our very core flawed. And ultimately, that is how we relate to one another.
This is amplified by Jakob Cedergren’s expressive performance as Asger. He is our only frame of response, he grounds every voice we hear, every moment revealed. We watch his brow furrow with concern and in perfect pantomime, as does ours.
The Guilty is tense, it’s upsetting, and it conjured an emotional response from this horror-hardened journalist’s exterior in a way I don’t think I’ve ever experienced before. The Guilty succeeds on all fronts. It is confronting, assaulting, and simply – wonderful.
The Guilty celebrated its Texas premiere at the 2018 Fantastic Festival. Check out all of Nightmare on Film Street’s Fantastic Fest coverage here!