FILM REVIEW: The Guilty, a high-concept Danish thriller told over the phone
A mother has been kidnapped, her children are home alone, there are no leads. These are some serious and dangerous problems, but now throw into the mix that Asger Holm (Jakob Cedergren), an alarm dispatcher with the Danish police, must try and fix everything over the phone. Gustav Möller’s directorial debut The Guilty, is a new release Danish thriller, that never sets foot outside of the police call centre. An expert combination of script, performance and camerawork makes this seemingly uncinematic premise one of the most exciting and gripping films of the summer.
The film takes advantage of a novel storytelling device - notably used in the 2014 film Locke - which restricts the perspective of the camera to a single titular character (Tom Hardy) hurtling down the highway, making and receiving phone calls all night long. The Guilty takes this visual mechanic and adds another layer of constraint, with the action now limited to a single floor of an office, but again led by a series of phone calls. Beyond brief movement between rooms within the space, Asger almost never leaves his chair.
His fixity is the problem; Asger can’t leave his post and launch himself into the action as we expect from the police procedural or crime thriller, triggering some kind of potentially violent but speedy resolution. But this tense and inescapable environment is also a problem for The Guilty’s filmmakers: how do you tell a story about a woman trapped in a car and the police officer who’s trying to save her, while the viewer is also stuck in a desk chair? Moreover; how do you make sure that such constraints don’t feel like a gimmicky distraction? For the most part, The Guilty effortlessly answers those questions with masterful camerawork, sound design, and performances.
Möller’s directorial genius is to create a unique grammar of tension and release for the film. Moments of stress are punctuated by tighter and tighter camera work, paired with the occasional thumping of the water cooler, the unexpected click of a phone hanging up or the seemingly never-ending dial tones ringing and ringing until, finally, someone answers. Moments of relief loosen the frame ever so slightly, as Cedergen lets Asger steal a grin or take a sip of water. We relax and clench as he does.
The film’s breakaway moment, and the introduction of this grammar, unsettles a short introductory sequence of boredom and monotony. A belligerent Asger disinterestedly fields phone calls about minor, petty crimes, until, nearing the end of his shift, he answers the phone to receive a strange and terrifying emergency call from Iben (Jessica Dinnage). Dinnage’s performance is worthy of commendation as we never actually get to see her, but she captures our full attention just with her voice.
In fact, it’s Dinnage’s perfect rendition of Iben’s confusing, panicked but pleasant way of speaking that piques Asger’s interest and sparks in him an instinctively protective response. Asger quickly realises, as do we, that Iben is desperately trying to communicate to him her kidnapped state in a kind of code. Noticing that Iben is unable to speak freely, he asks: “Does the person with you know you’ve called us [the police]?”
Silence for a moment.
“No,” says Iben.
Asger tries to remain calm and offer Iben strategies that don’t give her escape attempt away. This attempt at calmness is disturbed by a sonic and visual disparity, in which Asger’s cool, casual voice is broken by sharp inhales of air, crying, coughing, and spluttering on the other end of the phone. Throughout the film in moments like these, of excruciating tension and panic, the camera quickly and tightly pulls in on Asger’s face, in what Jeanette Catsoulis, writing for the New York Times rightly calls “almost abusive close ups.” Cedregen’s decision to depict Asger as serially restless and fidgeting also fills an unmoving and impenetrable space with erratic and anxious motion. Here again, presented with the impossible task of making a phone call cinematic, the performances, cinematography and sound design find a brilliant harmony that is riveting to watch.
The Guilty is in many ways a film about tunnel vision, obsession and rage. Asger ignores and rejects his colleagues’ warning that he’s become too attached and invested in Iben’s case. It’s clear that Asger has developed some kind of vigilante complex, imagining that he is capable of acting in ways the police can’t.
This fixation echoes the fixedness of the film. In turn, the film redirects the discomfort of that fixed point perspective now placing pressure on the audience themselves! Our investment in the subject is put on trial. Unable to turn away from the action, unable to intervene in the workings of the film we too are paralysed; are we voyeurs? Perhaps this is another meaning for the film’s title. We are not innocent bystanders watching this feature – instead we are complicit onlookers, and maybe we are guilty.
Asger’s continued interventions see him taking the literal law (police bureaucracy) into his hands. He manipulates co-workers and even suspects and victims into bending to his will in an aggressive and obsessive efforts to locate and free Iben from her kidnapper. Met with the slowness and inefficiency of the police department, Asger truly believes the importance of his decisions outweigh the systems of the police. He plays the tropological ‘rogue cop’ but somehow does so within the walls of an office building. This intense unorthodoxy can at times digress into strangely static, verbose moments in which the dialogue becomes more imagistic and poetic - less real. These sequences are not the film’s strongest, and come across less like meditations on power and guilt and more like distractions.
The moral question that hangs over the film is: what does guilt look like, does it matter, and how often is it muddied by assumption? The film’s ruminations on these questions are its weakest feature. They end up going in circles and are a bit vacuous. Major twists in the film risk over-correcting its moral message and trajectory, even going so far as to discount a compelling story about gendered violence. Asger is an unusual policeman, but the film is broadly uneasy about how to critique institutions like the police, it swings sharply back and forth between the limitations of bureaucracy and the dangers of speed and emotionality without really making a compelling case for or against either.
The film’s attempt at intellectual, heady contemplations on guilt, innocence and power are compelling, but they are overshadowed by The Guilty’s fascinating characters, narrative and expert craft. Expect to have your heart racing from about ten minutes in till the end, and stay on the line.
The Guilty opens February 28 at Dendy Newtown.