Danish director Gustav Möller debuts with a spine-chilling psychological thriller set in one location that develops an engaging world through ace characterisation and ever-escalating tension.
We meet Asger Holm when he’s about to finish his shift as an emergency dispatcher. He doesn’t seem to like his job very much, and he probably isn’t the type you’d like to face when you need help either. Harsh to just about anyone who asks for assistance, he doesn’t hesitate to tell a panicked man that a bad drug trip is his fault and pokes fun at a man robbed in the Red Light District. But when he speaks to his colleague, faint echoes of an impending trial and a return to his former duties emerge. Before he heads off, he picks up one more call: a woman tries to cover up that she’s on the phone with the police, hinting that she’s been kidnapped. As Asger tries to deduce the woman’s location, a sequence of manic calls gets us through the story, taking a detour into the policeman’s private life.
Although the film takes place only in the dispatch centre in Copenhagen, its brilliant execution makes it a compelling watch. For an hour and a half, we don’t leave Asger even for a second. The film trusts in uninterrupted continuity and doesn’t cut out anything that happens throughout. Instead, it shifts the angles and moves the camera with him. This approach contributes to the claustrophobic vibe that only ramps up the pressure. Our hero can’t move away from the police station; the spectator is stuck in this world with the protagonist, feeling the weight of his situation on their shoulders. Portraying the emotional cost of solving the case, Möller allows him to succumb to the decision-making. The director shows us the outcome of each choice immediately, highlighting its impact on both sides of the phone line.
There’s enough space in this psychological thriller for two plotlines that are tightly interconnected, each of them influencing the protagonist’s emotions in different ways. His evident anger management issues and unpleasantness are balanced out by his personal reveals, which helps to create a nuanced characterisation.
We’re drip-fed the details of his life as he gets on the case of the kidnapped woman; the film tells us what he turns to when he gets lonely, or who will be standing by his side during the trial the next day. The cross-over between his own problems and the situation he attempts to untangle only make the entire story idea more believable, too. The police officer’s actions show us how he treats others, what affects his judgement, what motivates him, how he decides to use his authority and finally, what the real cause of his behaviour is.
Jakob Cedergren owns his character, pulling off a one-man show with bravado and conviction. The camera often wanders extremely close to his face, driving attention to sweat, the smallest of wrinkles on his forehead and each twitch of the mouth. As he swings between frustration and relative calmness, he manages to capture the policeman’s fraught mental state and the effect of pressure on his actions, questioning our presumptions time after time.
The voice cast also shine in their roles, leading us by hand through the world they’re a part of. They create the sense of the physical distance by placing Asgar in the network of other people, from complete strangers to best friends. As they describe their surroundings or express their emotions, they drive the audience in with shattering realism of brief conversations. Jessica Dinnage’s performance as Iben is truly stirring. She manages to convey a broad spectrum of feelings only with brief calls that reveal her distress and confusion. But Katinka Evers-Jahnsen as her daughter Matilde and Johan Olsen as Michael are just as affecting. Neither of them appears on the screen, yet their powerful delivery twist and turn the dialogue, materialising their emotional state. And the sound design – the car noises, the creaking doors, the sound of footsteps – places the viewer in the same space with Asgar, allowing them to feel the tension in the room.
The Guilty pulls off its concept because of the thoughtful execution. A fantastic story, an emotive performance from Cedergren and camerawork that supports it created the air of credibility. But the movie pulls the viewer into it without moving the protagonist away from his desk. It creates a world beyond the police station, to which limited physical space poses no constraints.
The Guilty opens as a part of the London Film Festival. The film will be released in the UK on the 26th of October 2018.