For most of us who have had the misfortune of calling an emergency dispatch line, the voice on the other end will remain a disembodied presence — a blurry connection in the ether of a crisis. The person’s physical appearance and backstory are immaterial, their relationships to the callers fleeting and impersonal.
Part of the genius of The Guilty, the debut feature from Danish co-writer/director Gustav Moller, is the way it reverses this paradigm. It restricts us solely to the point of view of one such professional as he navigates an external hostage situation and an internal moral reckoning, in real time, over one harrowing night on the job.
It begins in the middle of a seemingly ordinary shift for Asger Holm (Jakob Cedergren), a restive desk jockey fielding calls from inarticulate junkies and self-sabotaging robbery victims. In between faux emergencies, an inquiry from a reporter seeking a comment about Asger’s court appearance the next day hints at his personal struggles, which achieve elegant clarity as this chamber piece unravels.
His workday is nearly complete when he receives a mysterious call from a woman whose motivations are unclear and her answers evasive, until Asger uncovers the reason for it: She’s pretending to be on the phone with her daughter because she’s been abducted, and she doesn’t want her captor to know the truth from behind the wheel of his getaway van. This sets in motion the kind of case that any dogged cop — especially a former beat cop who’s been reduced to desk duty pending a court hearing for improper conduct — would want to see to the end.
From this point until the film’s conclusion, some 70 minutes later, expect your heart rate to slow to a near flatline, immersed in the sort of suspense that no eerie score could do justice. Instead, Moller allows the ambient audio swarming Asger’s headset to suggest the evolving dread.
As Asger, overstepping his parameters as an emergency dispatcher, phones the abductee’s home and her ex-husband’s cellphone, the film’s marvelously orchestrated sound design paints the appropriate pictures: cars rumbling on a freeway, doors slamming shut and creaking open, gravel crushed underfoot, police sirens wailing, a child crying.
We see nothing, but our mind’s eye sees everything, and the sights are increasingly unpretty. The Guilty is a playground for the mind, but the sand is stained with blood. All the while, Moller’s camera homes in on Cedergren’s tortured face in close-ups that only can be described as invasive, each subtle hair on his mostly unshaven cheeks gleaming in high-def.
As Asger sweats through the night, his fingers dancing across the handset and, more often than not, going straight to voicemail, The Guilty dramatizes the impotent frustration of slowness in a time of agonizing urgency, a feeling familiar to many in law enforcement. And yet, despite his distance from the action, facts are compiled and a case is gradually built.
But like any good mystery, surprises abound — shocking developments that check our collective biases and assumptions. Far more important than a Shyamalanian twist-for-twist’s sake, the secrets that unspool in the final quarter of The Guilty function as an indictment of Denmark’s health care system. I’ll have to leave it at that for risk of spoilers, for it’s best to approach this singular experience with a minimal plot description.
Is The Guilty a gimmicky structuralist exercise? I would argue no. The last film I can recall in which the dialogue is entirely presented via phone, from one character’s perspective, is Steven Knight’s Locke, in which Tom Hardy’s title character unpacks career and relationship crises over the course of a two-hour commute in his BMW X5. Looking back, its content feels as insignificant as its form was novel: fits of First-World pique delivered from a luxurious sanctuary. Asger’s problems are his profession’s problems, his country’s problems. The least we can do is remain on hold.
THE GUILTY. Director: Gustav Moller; Cast: Jakob Cedergren; Distributor: Magnolia; Rated R; In Danish with English subtitles; Opens: Friday at area theaters including Lake Worth Playhouse, Living Room Theaters at FAU, Movies of Delray and Movies of Lake Worth.