This stark and gripping Danish thriller succeeds in packing a punch, despite self-imposed limitations. The Guilty confines its visual action to a single location – the interior of a police control room in which officers responds to emergency phone calls. It is like an audio play, with ‘voices off’, one that becomes psychologically darker and more complex the longer we spend with the main character, Asger (Jakob Cedergren). It has also been described as a cerebral action film, and the audience is forced to listen more intensely, to imagine what is happening off-screen as if we are listening to a radio drama.
The Guilty brings to mind Steven Knight’s Locke (2014), another claustrophic ‘audio’ film, in which Tom Hardy’s character juggles multiple unfolding dramas over his car phone. Locke, though, has movement, and the occasional cinematic flourish – spangled motorway lights blurring in the rear-view mirror. In The Guilty there is no escape from a static location and there is little in the way of visual distraction. As two parallel dramas threaten to overwhelm him, Asger retreats to an inner office room and closes the blinds. We are, effectively, in his head, and it is getting very dark in there. If Samuel Beckett had scripted a thriller for cinema it would have looked and sounded something like this, but there would have been more props and black comedy.
The film begins with Asger fielding a couple of ‘trivial’ calls, one from a student freaking out after taking drugs, the other from a man who has been mugged after visiting a prostitute in Copenhagen’s red light district. “This phone duty is shit,” says a colleague. But Asger takes his work more seriously when he receives a call from Iben (Jessica Dinnage), a mother who has been abducted by a violent partner, leaving her six-year-old daughter and baby alone at home.
Asger tries his best to resolve the situation, separately counselling the distressed Iben and her daughter. “I’m with the police,” he reassures them, “we’re protectors,” but this confident assertion is tested as we learn more about his own situation. Asger has a court case the next day and a witness who is worried about sticking to the script. He apologises to his colleagues for his behaviour – “not just today but recently.” As the film goes on we gradually learn who is ‘guilty’, and there is a jaw-dropping twist.
Director and co-writer Gustav Möller pulls off the seemingly impossible trick of engaging his audience for 85 minutes without resorting to eye candy or any other distraction. The music is minimal, the camerawork unobtrusive. Jakob Cedergren plays Asger as a blank page which is filled in bit by bit. His face is in our faces most of the time, but it is not a particularly interesting or expressive one. A light sheen of sweat on his forehead is the only clue to the mounting stress he is under. As our imaginations follow the offscreen drama we are forced to direct our own version of Möller’s script in our own heads.