(2018—Director: Gustav Möller)
— by Renard N. Bansale —
(out of 5 stars)
Potential spoilers below
For any budding filmmaker, making a feature debut is a daunting task. Since Orson Welles had already set the insurmountable gold standard for feature debuts with a little flick called Citizen Kane, it is best to start as simple and minimalist as possible and build up a career from there. Danish director Gustav Möller seems to have taken this route with The Guilty (Dansk: Den Skyldige), a thriller he co-wrote with Emil Nygaard Albertsen. Reminiscent of recent films like Locke and The Call, The Guilty and star Jakob Cedergren succeed in taking audiences to the bare extreme of cinematic tension.
Until their shifts end for the day, emergency dispatchers face an endless duel with time and Danish officer Asger Holm (Jakob Cedergren) is no exception. Holm normally works in the field with fellow officer Rashid (voiced by Omar Shargawi). For reasons soon revealed, however, Holm is temporarily stuck working as an emergency dispatcher while his boss Bo (voiced by Jacob Lohmann) substitutes for him in the field.
One call comes from a woman named Iben Østerård (voiced by Jessica Dinnage), who does not sound like she is in immediate danger. Holm realizes as the conversation progresses that Iben has been kidnapped. Further calls to Iben’s home, where her daughter Mathilde (voiced by Katinka Evers-Jahnsen) and her infant son Oliver are alone, reveal that Iben’s captor is her ex-husband Michael (voiced by Johan Olsen). When Michael cuts off their phone conversation, Holm must dive into the police database and dial more numbers in search of Iben before she and her captor disappear for good.
Isolating Asger Holm’s journey to just two drab emergency dispatch offices challenges writer-director Gustav Möller to deliver without one word wasted. Möller and co-writer Emil Nygaard Albertsen first draw audiences in with the volatile pace of the dispatchers. Everything spoken or unspoken can mean life or death for the people on the other sides, so the dispatchers must practice steady nerves. Though he too had to master this, star Jakob Cedergren also had to have those nerves chipped away over 85 minutes and it greatly fascinates to watch his breakdown. Möller and Albertsen also leave room for comic relief: Early on, Holm amuses himself when a caller located near a red light district hesitates to admit that he got robbed by a prostitute he hired. Later on, Holm tries to call back Iben in a panic and he keeps answering and declining multiple calls from an injured bicyclist.
Production designer Gustav Pontoppidan makes the dispatch station feel confining, Jasper J. Spanning’s cinematography probes into Asger Holm’s business with stark lighting and a few well-focused long takes, and Carla Luffe provides the sharp cuts characteristic of a taut thriller. Yet perhaps the one technical craft worthy of top billing next to Jakob Cedergren is Oskar Skriver’s sound work. Skriver and his crew masterfully adjust the voices on the opposite end of Asger Holm’s calls to sound as clear and present as Holm hears them.
While Iben’s kidnapping predicament unravels to horrific degrees, Möller also draws audiences to the pressing matter on Holm’s mind. Themes of mental health and police brutality creep into a thriller that does more than follow an emergency dispatcher’s shift. With these, Möller and Albertsen are less successful, choosing ambiguity over detailed clarity, especially for the latter theme. Increasing the context of the heavy issue on Holm’s mind would have helped The Guilty avoid losing momentum, and thus making the 85-minute runtime feel a tad longer than it should, right before locking onto its home stretch.
With his feature debut The Guilty, writer-director Gustav Möller reminds us all of a peculiar tendency found in our broken human nature: Those in trouble try their best to cover their embarrassment and guilt by overdoing good. When their excessive good acts go haywire, they end up worsening their situation. Möller’s thriller, though it could have benefited from greater detail regarding its protagonist’s worries as they are slowly revealed, does not fail to highlight that such human behavior even affects the most hardened among us. The Guilty deserves its status as Denmark’s official entry for the Best Foreign Language Film category at the upcoming 91st Oscars and it will not surprise me one bit if it becomes one of the final five nominees.
About the Author
Renard N. Bansale once aspired to become an astronaut, before he found his passion in film discussion, criticism, conducting script-reading sessions of feature film screenplays, and annual Oscar tracking. Hailing from Seattle, WA, Renard graduated from JPCatholic in 2016 with a B.S. in Communications Media (Emphasis in Screenwriting) and is currently pursuing his M.A. in Theology online at the Augustine Institute.
For more movie reviews by Renard, click here.