'The Guilty' Review: Denmark's Oscar Entry Is A Nifty One-Location Thriller

Denmark's 2019 Oscar entry is the kind of genre film that doesn't normally make it through the Academy's gates, but it's a taut thriller with enough dramatic heft that it may prove to be an exception. High-concept thrillers are often written in reverse, with stories extrapolated (if not merely tacked on) to premises-as-a-selling points. I'd be willing to wager that the screenplay for The Guilty, written by director Gustav Möller along with Emil Nygaard Albertsen, was conceived much the same way, though that's hardly a point against it. Its premise is undoubtedly its driving force; set in a police dispatch center, the film takes place in real time within four stationary walls, as officer Asger Holm (Jakob Cedergren) monitors a journey by car. The plot could easily have functioned independently of the story being told, but it goes from being interesting to downright riveting once injected with a tale about — you guessed it — guilt.

Asger isn't a regular at emergency dispatch. He's been put behind a desk for reasons slowly revealed over the course of the film (albeit reasons easy to guess from the outset) and he doesn't seem to particularly like people. If someone's been mugged, he tries to spin it as their own fault. If someone calls him drunk and in distress, he tells them they shouldn't have been drinking. Given the opportunity, he wields these civilians' guilt as a weapon against them. So long as the situation doesn't seem urgent, Asger sees no reason to empathize or lend a helping hand, especially not on his last day before being let back into the field. That is, until a mysterious call from an abducted woman catches his attention.

The woman is unable to tell him exactly what's going on. Her captor thinks she's speaking to one of her children, so Asger has to employ 'yes' or 'no' questions to assess the situation — for once, he may have no choice but to help — hunting for clues as to where she and the suspect are headed, who they are, where they live, and whether the woman's children are safe.

To say much more about the plot would be spoiling the fun. Each step leads neatly to the next as Asger, along with the remote help of his inebriated partner Rashid (his key witness for... the thing he's been accused of) uncovers information bit by bit, building the version of the story in front of him that makes the most sense. As it grows deeper and winds further, Asger isolates himself from the rest of the unit in order to keep up with the case, at times following procedure, other times breaking the rules in order to solve a dire situation, both for better and for worse.

The voice performances (of which there are several) help create an entire web of living characters who we only ever get to know through their conversations with Asger. It's sort of like Locke in that regard, Steven Knight's one-car thriller with Tom Hardy, only Möller doesn't have the luxury of changing scenery. What he does have, however, is light and sound. Asger and this kidnapping mystery are at the mercy of others, so a big chunk of the tension winds up as Asger simply waits for calls. The sudden ringing of phones when he isn't expecting a call is jolting. Their silence when he is expecting one, deafens. A large red light turns on every time one of the work stations gets a call; as Asger moves into a private room to monitor the situation, the setting grows darker and more intimate, leaving him illuminated mostly by computer screen, turning the film's cool blue tinge entirely cold.

Jakob Cedergren anchors the entire film, shifting the stone-faced Asger's mood and posture over the course of 85 minutes, in ways that tell an entire story all on their own. While the film is undeniably sound-dependent, you could watch it on mute and get a sense of the internal journey Cedergren goes on, having to balance kineticism and calm depending on who he's on the phone with in a given scene. The again, the film is really one single scene for its entire runtime; its peaks and valleys are masterfully assembled by editor Carla Luff, spaced out like the most disquieting music.

Asger can't solve this problem the way he ordinarily would — out in the field, perhaps using violence as a first resort — so he's forced to truly connect with someone in order to help them. While enough of his assessment of the situation is mere presumption (I'm sure you won't mind this reassuring spoiler: it isn't a prank), the solution relies on Asger working up to confronting his own misdeeds before getting to the root of the problem.

While watching a man in power having to face the consequences of his actions sounds like something to revel in, The Guilty employs every weapon in its arsenal to ensure that Asger Holm is equal parts villain and hero, sometimes in the very same moment. He's forced to bare his soul in the most human of ways, with Cedergren acting mostly opposite detached voices (sometimes that of a child) as he searches for the humanity hidden deep beneath Asger's rotten exterior, a façade hardened over years through the power afforded to him by a badge and a gun.

Guilt comes for us all eventually, though turning it into a force for good is a story we seldom see. That it comes courtesy of a film that twists like a knife is especially delightful; that such a thrilling piece may end up on the Oscar stage is even more so.

/Film Rating: 8 out of 10