Asger Holm’s (Jacob Cedergren) day begins, at the Copenhagen Emergency Services hotline, with a drug and booze addled caller incoherently asking for help and hangs up. Another call comes in about a minor bicycle accident. Then, he gets a call from an obviously frightened woman saying “Hello sweetheart!” This begins Asger’s own, personal investigation to find “The Guilty.”
Feature film newcomer Gustav Moller directs, and co-writes with Emil Nygaard Albertsen, this one-man show with Asger manning the Emergency Services hotline phone during one night. Very early on, it is hinted that Asger, a police officer, is at the ES for a reason. Mental problems? A marital crisis? Even though the “why is he there?” is answered, eventually, it is a small part of the story, but one that you keep coming back to in your mind. I was not expecting this level of character nuance in what is, essentially, a psychological thriller.
About that thriller. I could go into the one-POV story about how Asger makes decisions not just from what he hears during his calls with the woman, Iben (voiced by Jessica Dinnage), but with the other pieces of information he uncovers, too. What appears to be apparent and obvious, at first (for Asger and us, too), changes shape and form as this tense drama unfolds.
The one-sided approach to the well-played intrigue of “The Guilty” is very difficult to pull off on film. Watching a person talking on the phone for 90-minutes and keeping the viewer interested from start to finish is a tough task. “Locke (2013),” with a tour-de-force emotional performance by Tom Hardy, and “Phone Booth (2002),” with Colin Farrell and Kiefer Sutherland (as the disembodied voice on the other end of the line), are the only ones I could come up with that pull it off.
“The Guilty” joins that short list of one-sided thrillers and, with a stellar performance by Jacob Cedergren, is right up there with its well-made predecessors. You realize what is really happening just as Asger does and it is the series of gut-wrenching turns and revelations that kept me riveted the whole time. I give it a B+.
Emergency services operator Asger Holm (Jakob Cedergren, "Terribly Happy") reveals his preconceptions and prejudices in his response to callers, telling a panicky drug addict that his predicament is his own fault, laughing at a man reporting a robbery when he learns he is in the Red Light District. Asger hangs up on a journalist, hinting that there is more to learn about him, but he turns deadly serious when he receives a call from Iben (voice of Jessica Dinnage), her kidnapper able to hear her pretending to call her young daughter from their moving vehicle in "The Guilty."
Cowriter (with Emil Nygaard Albertsen)/director Gustav Möller makes his directorial debut taking a page from 2013's Tom Hardy starrer "Locke," where one man faces a crisis of conscience during a series of phone calls in real time. Asger's problem isn't a personal one, however, but an on-the-job decision that has placed him under investigation and temporarily sidelined him from Denmark's police force. In his desperation to save Iben, however, Möller has cannily placed Asger in much the same position, the cop's predilection to consider himself judge and jury turning around to bite him once again.
In a taut 85 minute running time, Möller really puts us through the ringer with Iben's plight, Dinnage's tremulous and somewhat childlike voice adding to the tension. When her call is cut off, Asger is able to trace her home address, making contact with her daughter, Mathilde (voice of Katinka Evers-Jahnsen), a terrified six year-old alone in the house with her infant baby brother. With only a description of the vehicle, Holm is frustrated with dispatch, who reluctantly sends a squad car to patrol a stretch of highway looking for a white van. He identifies the kidnapper as Iben's estranged husband Michael (voice of Johan Olsen), getting through to the man who refuses to talk to him. The police pull over the wrong van, wasting precious time. Meanwhile Asger contacts his partner, Rashid (voice of Omar Shargawi), who he asks to break into Michael's apartment in search of clues. Rashid is already nervous about testifying at Asger's hearing the following day and has been drinking, but agrees to help even though what Asger's asking is illegal.
Things were kept visually interesting in "Locke" due to the constantly changing landscape outside of Hardy's vehicle and its cinematographer's use of dashboard lights and reflections. Möller's stationary location provides less opportunity for interesting shots, but production designer Gustav Pontoppidan and his art department use vertical lines and grids to imprison their subject while cinematographer Jasper J. Spanning keeps his camera moving. Then there is Cedergren himself, the actor not inviting any kind of sympathy, yet getting us on his side with his obvious concern for this one caller and his dogged pursuit of every lead. If a red flag is raised at one of his instructions, as it was for me, prepare to be both right and wrong. "The Guilty" is a nerve shredding thriller that also invites serious introspection.
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