The Guilty (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★
Here is a portrait of a man who so wishes so badly to save a life. Is it simply because it is a part of his job? Written and directed by Gustav Möller, “The Guilty” takes place in two rooms of a police dispatch center. The rooms are nondescript and increasingly claustrophobic the longer one stares at a wall. And despite the type of calls police officers receive, everyone manages to go on about their mundane day. What they do has become such a norm, they can stomach eating a sandwich on their desk. The rest of the story, however, takes place in the viewers’ imagination. We hear the many voices from the other line and eventually we are groomed to assign a number for each call, from number one as minimal threat to number ten as immediate danger. Asger Holm (Jakob Cedergren) receives a level ten call from a woman who claims to have been kidnapped.
It is not a typical suspense-thriller in which the person who receives a call becomes so desperate that he ends up leaving his place of work to chase after a perpetrator. Instead, the work turns inwards. With a penchant for tight close-ups, we are forced to observe Asger as helplessness begins to take over his mind and body. Although clearly a trained professional who knows the rules—but not unwilling to break them—his moments of humanity, of controlled panic, makes for a compelling watch. Certainly we are meant to question what we would have done had we been in his shoes. He does not always do the right thing, and he knows it.
Notice how his hands shake more noticeably the deeper we get into the story without the help of the camera focusing on this particular body part. The attention is always on the subject’s face. We get a distinct impression that the unblinking eye aims to capture or reveal something. Less effective filmmakers tend to focus on the whirlwind all around instead of how inner turmoil creates intestinal knots within their subjects’ being. This is Möller’s first feature film and it offers a certain freshness that more commercial or Hollywood pictures tend to struggle with when it comes to race against time stories.
The woman on the other line is named Iben (Jessica Dinnage) and not for one split-second do we ever lay eyes on her. We only hear her voice, how afraid she is of being killed. The center of the picture is the connection between Asger and Iben; Asger finds purpose in her as does Iben in him. We learn about her children at home. We learn about Asger’s reputation at work. There is urgency in the plot and yet the material is willing to slow down just to give these characters time to forge their connection—critical because we must care about the people involved in a familiar story.
Its use of sound is particularly suspenseful. Shuffling footsteps, the closing of a car door, swooshing vehicles on a highway, the pattering of rain. The noise—and sometimes its absence—is so amplified that when another character explores a foreign room, for instance, we imagine the worst yet to be discovered. In this way, we are always ahead of the action.
Our minds go toward an imaginary place and yet the camera is transfixed on the police officer assigned to desk duty. We trace his evolution from a man who is so blasé about his job—it is revealed early on that it is his last day in the dispatch center—to somebody who actually wants to do right thing, to honor his occupation and his chosen path.