“The greatest location in the world,” John Cassavetes once claimed, “is the human face.” That theory is put to the test in Gustav Möller’s The Guilty, a taut chamber thriller dominated by the flinty yet highly emotive visage of actor Jakob Cedergren. The action of the film unfolds entirely inside an emergency call center to which hard-ass police officer Asger Holm (Cedergren) has been exiled pending an investigation into an incident whose nature becomes clear only late in the film. Asger should be cooling his heels in preparation for a trial the next day relating to this incident, but instead he becomes embroiled in a tense, telephonic race-against-time investigation when a distressed woman named Iben (Jessica Dinnage) calls him claiming to have been kidnapped by her husband (Johan Olsen). Rather than allowing this to play out through the proper channels, Asger takes it upon himself to singlehandedly save this woman and her daughter (Katinka Evers-Jahnsen)—who’s been left home alone—completely over the telephone.
Cedergren’s performance powers the film with a smoldering desperation, the outward manifestation of Asger’s gnawing hunger for redemption. His strong jaw and haunting baby blues—not to mention his ear, which Möller homes in on in the film’s first shot and returns to throughout as a visual motif—fill nearly every frame of The Guilty, and they’re as integral to the drama of Möller’s film as Maria Falconetti’s tortured expression was to Carl Theodore Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc. One can detect the deeper influence of the Danish master—specifically his 1955 minimalist masterpiece Ordet—in this film’s inventive yet highly controlled use of limited space. Möller “opens up” his potentially claustrophobic drama not by leaving the call center but by exploring it from new angles—using a window frame to evoke prison bars in one shot, subtly positioning Asger within the frame to suggest he’s under a Judgment at Nuremberg-style interrogation.
Möller also cannily evokes a world outside the confines of the call center through some subdued yet highly effective sound design and remarkably expressive voice performances—particularly Dinnage’s, which straddles an ambiguous line between abject fear and childlike naïveté. Asger may be physically located in the police station’s call center, but mentally he occupies the aural space of the calls themselves, having to decode the subtle clues embedded in the vocal inflections of the callers and the ambient noise of their surroundings. We in the audience can’t help but play along, visualizing the various scenes and scenarios suggested by the calls just as Asger does. In many ways, the sonic environment of the calls feels more real than the bland interiors we see before us, a trick of perception Möller cleverly plays with, convincing us that we fully understand what we’re hearing before revealing how limited our (and Asger’s) perspective really is.
By toying with our auditory perception—by framing Asger’s ordeal, in some small way, as an inquiry into our own errors of discernment—The Guilty is able to mitigate the inherent contrivance of a real-time, single-room potboiler whose plot unfurls entirely through a series of phone calls. Möller and co-screenwriter Emil Nygaard Albertsen dispense clues with calm regularity, heightening the emotional stakes at just the right moments without the film ever feeling like it’s becoming overloaded with incident. At a terse 85 minutes, there’s no room for any superfluous detail, and the narrative, accordingly, has been stripped of anything that would get in the way of its steadily simmering pace. Along the way, the film reveals itself to be the rare police drama to mount a defense of rules, limitations, procedures, and protocol.
Only in its final stretch does The Guilty start to lose some steam, as Möller grapples just a bit too hard to close on a moment of transcendence. The film does eventually find its grace note in its final shot, which shows Asger leaving the call center, bathed in white light, as he finally re-enters the outside world. The Guilty may be about the moral struggle of single lonely cop, but it ultimately suggests that no one man can save the world.