The Guilty (Den skyldige)

Denmark (2018) Dir. Gustav Möller

An aphorism that paraphrases Edgar Allan Poe asserts “Believe half of what you see and none of what you hear”. Taking this as its premise, being on the end of a telephone can fuel an inquisitive mind but does this lead to right decisions being made?

Whilst waiting for his disciplinary review, police officer Asger Holm (Jakob Cedergren) has been assigned to the emergency services call centre. Showing little sympathy for some of the callers, the first interesting call he gets comes from a woman named Iben Østergård (Jessica Dinnage), apparently calling someone at home instead.

Through surreptitious questioning Asger discerns that Iben has been abducted by her ex-husband Michael (Johan Olsen) and with vague details about the car, calls for the police to get to Iben. A call to Iben’s home where her six year-old daughter Mathilde (Katinka Evers-Jahnsen) is alone with her baby brother reveals the shocking horror behind the abduction.

Likely to be compared to the Tom Hardy film Locke and Russian drama Collector, Gustav Möller’s debut feature The Guilty is essentially another one man show where the action occurs off-screen, related through voices and sounds from the end of a telephone, the camera never leaving the interior of the call centre.

Others are on screen, some interacting with Asger, but the focus is predominantly on Asger. This set up requires many single take scenes that run for some length, but Möller also employs quick cut edits and changing camera angles to relay the claustrophobic frustration and hopelessness Asger feels in leaving the hard graft to others.

Asger clearly possesses an unruly edge, mocking one caller for being mugged in a red light district and unable to hide his schadenfreude; through calls to colleagues in other departments the seeds of mystery involving the disciplinary review are planted – no obvious, clunky exposition, just cogent references subtly informing us of a reason this abrasive person is manning the phones.

But he is a cop and his taste for something grittier than a car accident is satiated when Iben’s call comes through. At first her refrain of “yes sweetheart” makes Asger think he has another weirdo on the line until certain questions yield interesting answers and the desperation in Iben’s voice becomes apparent the more discreet she tries to be.

Unfortunately, with scant details about the car or the destination able to be relayed to him, Asger is limited in the information he can give his colleagues in getting a car out to the location. His temper starts to get the better of him, which we assume is either aimed at not being on the front line or feeling the others are incompetent in their responses.

This really is an ingenious, not to mention economic way to deliver an astute character study without having to construct an elaborate storyline to depict the emotional turmoil they endure. Asger puts himself through the wringer as much as the situation itself does, partly through his own sense of inadequacy from being restricted to the call centre and others not being able to act the way he would.  

Asger makes calls to two colleagues Bo (Jacob Lohmann), also removed from his regular duties, and Nikolaj (Simon Bennebjerg) to break into Michael’s house in the hope of finding clues to his destination with Iben. Bo is resolute in his refusal but Nikolaj is easily cajoled into it, possible for reasons of guilt relating to the disciplinary review.

Whilst this makes Asger sound corrupt and untrustworthy, he is acting this way because he promised Mathilde her mummy would be home soon, and whatever flaws he may have, Asger has taken this vow incredibly seriously. But, the complexity of the situation takes a whole new twist once the police arrive at the house to stay with Mathilde and baby Oliver.

Superficially, it might read like a case of one thing after another to spice up the plot, which it does, but Möller and co-writer Emil Nygaard Albertsen have fully understood the power of subverting the obvious through suggestion and expectation. Working exactly like a radio play, each development brings with it a new layer of intrigue and horror which in turn puts further pressure on Asger to get things moving and deliver on his promise.

It is hard to convey just how nerve wracking and tense it is for the audience to hear this saga unfold just as Asger does, except we have the cipher of Asger’s reactions guiding us as much as we share the experience. Like Asger, we are helpless but in our position of observer, we have no control or influence over the outcome, less than Asger, whose reputation as a frustrated but dedicated cop slowly disintegrates before our eyes.

The deftly crafted plotting is relentlessly draining to the end, an ambiguous and abrupt denouement we are left to decipher as being either the beginning of Asger’s redemption or his downfall as a cop. The dialogue is natural, kept open to interpretation and limited in its revelations not to spoil anything, though I doubt anyone sees the twists coming.

Naturally, Jakob Cedergren carries the film and works very inch of his fibre into the role to tell the story with his expressions and reactions to the sounds and commentary from the other end of the phone. The way his character unravels before us is as compelling as the drama he is caught up but we mustn’t underestimate the talents of the voice cast who play of Cedergren with the same conviction as if they were face to face.

Belying its status as a debut, The Guilty is an assured and accomplished first effort from Gustav Möller, showing an impressive grasp on the language of film and how to get so much from a simple, bare bones concept. For 85 minutes, Möller and Cedergren have us in the palm of their hands then grip us so tightly and intensely we’re too scared to breathe out again afterwards.