Release: Friday, October 19, 2018 (Denmark)
Written by: Gustav Möller; Emil Nygaard Albertsen
Directed by: Gustav Möller
Starring: Jakob Cedergren; Jessica Dinnage
Distributor: Nordisk Film Distribution
Gustav Möller’s The Guilty is a superlative example of minimalist filmmaking, one that made the December shortlist for Best Foreign Language Feature at the 91st Academy Awards. Taking place entirely in the stuffy confines of an emergency call center near the Danish capital of Copenhagen the film employs little more than a single actor and a headset to create a memorable, thrilling experience.
Swedish actor Jakob Cedergren is the film’s lonely leading man, playing a recently demoted police officer named Asger Holm. With his return to actual policing pending a court hearing, Asger bides his time fielding calls from citizens in distress. It’s boring, tedious work that is quite clearly beneath him. The first several calls are fodder for his ego, with one unfortunate junkie getting berated for his poor life choices by the very agency he’s expecting to send along an ambulance. Indeed, even when there isn’t much activity going on in the room, the film feels alive as there is plenty to read into the actor’s body language and long silences.
His shift becomes a little more interesting when Asger receives a call from a panicked woman named Iben (Jessica Dinnage) who is fearing for her life after being kidnapped by her psycho husband Michael (Johan Olsen). The sheer desperation in the voice is enough to snap Asger out of his funk, and into full-fledged detective mode. As the situation becomes more dire he finds himself in between a rock and a hard place, putting his career and potentially innocent lives in jeopardy as he attempts to solve the problem on his own.
Part police procedural — one in which the cops compellingly lack line of sight — and part morality play, The Guilty largely relies on technical elements like sound design (the opening/closing of car doors, voice intonation, muffled ambient noises etc) to relay action and even emotion, with the accompanying beeping with each incoming and outgoing phone call further contributing to the stress. Simple but creative use of lighting adds to the atmosphere as well, the Status Indicator light starting its life in the film as a banal feature of the job before evolving into an ominous wash of red suggesting our embattled protagonist may indeed have blood on his hands.
Most immersive of all these elements is the camerawork provided by Jasper J. Spanning, whose technique elevates the reaction shot beyond an art form. Here the response to information tells as much of the story as the information itself. The near-suffocating perspective ensures we get to know every inch of the actor’s face and every bead of sweat native to it. The encroaching angles complement an already commanding screen presence, with Cedergren submitting an utterly authentic performance as a complicated man attempting to do what’s morally right.
The Guilty is a fascinating movie, and not just because of the presentation style. The story is chockablock with the unexpected. A few wrinkles will have you questioning just what you would do — a feeling encouraged by those close camera placements. The script by Möller and Emil Nygaard Albertsen is intelligent and inventive, rendering a crisis in vivid detail via a series of increasingly stressful conversations while burrowing ever deeper into the psyche of a man who may not be the most rule-abiding officer around. The creative use of space and sparing cinematic elements makes it almost impossible to disengage, and it all ends in an emotional exclamation mark that is absolutely earned.
Moral of the Story: If you are a fan of cerebral, unpredictable thrillers, The Guilty should be an easy choice. Although it ultimately did not make the final ballot at this past Oscar’s ceremony, the film undeniably deserves a broader audience. An incredibly creative use of such basic cinematic tools. Spoken in Danish with English subtitles.
Running Time: 85 mins.
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