In a small, claustrophobic office, men and women sit and take emergency phone calls, one after the other, for the entire night.
For some, this is a blithe office job. For others, it’s a way for them to exert control over a world that can seem overly chaotic at times. For a select few, this can become a maddening passion, with their lives becoming controlled by the stories they must take part in.
Such is the case for Asgar Holm (a remarkable Jakob Cedergren), the protagonist of Gustav Möller’s high-stakes thriller, The Guilty. As a police officer with only one day left on desk duty, Asgar is callous and often dismissive of his callers. One of the first callers in the film, a young man suffering from a drug overdose, is berated by the officer, who emotionlessly reminds him that taking drugs was his own choice. Later phone calls get dismissed even faster. Despite all of Asgar’s flaws – there is a reason, discovered shortly before the end of the film, that he’s been assigned to desk duty – he still sees himself and the police at large as benevolent figures. At one point, while comforting a young girl whose parents have vanished, he reassures her, stating simply that “The police are protectors.”
Asgar’s intense savior complex comes to the forefront when a woman identifying herself as Iben (Jessica Dinnage) calls the hotline. Iben claims to have been abducted, and this scared woman prompts all of Asgar’s neuroses to emerge. Shirking typical protocol, Asgar takes it upon himself to save the poor woman, going so far as to reach out to a former partner to break into places that may evidence as to their whereabouts. Through his phone calls, we learn to understand Asgar. He’s untrusting and slightly power-mad, believing that if anything will be done competently, he has to do it himself. Like many great tragedies, we find ourselves praying that the protagonist will cease his course of action, and for a moment, that seems almost possible. Early in the film, we are informed that Asgar only has ten minutes left on his shift until he gets to go home for the night. Those ten minutes come and go almost unnoticed, and instead of going home, he retreats literally and figuratively further and further into his job.
Much like this year’s Searching, The Guilty uses only a single location during its entire runtime, but that doesn’t mean the film relies on it as a cheap trick. The cinematography constantly reinforces Asgar’s mental state, using subtle push-ins and close-ups to remind us of the stress and intensity he faces on the job. The film also cleverly divides its location into subsections. When the film starts, Asgar’s sitting in a populated office environment, with harsh fluorescent lighting and people sitting next to and across from him. As the situation escalates, he retreats into a side room, separated from his colleagues. Finally, as the movies intensity reaches a crescendo, he turns out the lights and rolls the blinds down, allowing the only lights to come from his computer monitor, and the ever-present bright-red call waiting light, which seems more terrifying than anything else.
One often overlooked aspect of these single-location crime films can be how they play with imagination. When one only has part of the picture, they’re forced to fill in the blanks. The Guilty does this magnificently, with sound design forcing us into the caller’s environment. Despite the caller having a typical phone-filter, we hear their environment as clear as day. Iben’s voice may be muffled, but we hear her car going down the freeway, and the rain pouring down on her. Later on, as the story unravels, we are told horrific stories. Without a visual, there is a scene midway through The Guilty that is more gruesome than anything I have seen in recent memory, and I believe if they’d shown it, it would feel cheapened, like a horror movie shock.
And in the end, that’s the big surprise about this film. The story may be a typical pulp-thriller, with gimmicky framing and obvious symbolism, but despite all this, it works. This is in part due to clever filmmaking, brilliant performances, and an attention to detail that can often be lost in these roller coasters. As such, this movie feels miraculous: a simple idea, executed brilliantly, and while it may not break new ground, I haven’t stopped thinking about it since the credits rolled.
The film is now playing and is Denmark’s Oscar entry for Best Foreign Film.