Review: The Guilty Proves You Don’t Need A Ton of CG to Make an Intense Thriller
Phone Booth. Buried. Pontypool. Locke. The Call. And now…The Guilty. What all of these movies have in common is that they stay with one character in a claustrophobic area while scary situations happen around them. Whether they’re in a coffin or a car, as long as the script is smart film fans will stick around to the bitter end and probably nibble a few nails in the process.
The Guilty, a Danish film which is their entry for Academy Award consideration, is even more pared-down than others of its ilk. This tight whodunnit takes place entirely at a 911 emergency call center, and we see only the police officer talking on the phone (though occasionally he interacts briefly with his call center colleagues) and unfolds in real time.
We are privy to exchanges between Asger Holm (Jakob Cedergren), a cop who has been temporarily demoted to working the phones, as he struggles to save a woman who has been abducted by a seemingly dangerous man. We see Asger in tight, unflinching close-ups, but only hear the strained voices of those who are experiencing the emergency. It’s mostly Eben (Jessica Dinnage), who’s surreptitiously called 911 while in the back of a van. She’s pretending to talk to her daughter so that her captor is none the wiser. Asger and Eben work out a way to speak in code and he gets as much information for dispatch as he possibly can.
After speaking with Eben, Asger tracks down her daughter Mathilde (Katinka Evers-Jahnsen) and keeps her on the phone until officers can get into the residence from which her mother was forcibly taken. Details come to light, deepening the mystery. In addition to the tragedy at hand, we also get a glimpse behind Asger’s demotion, which is related to an incident about which he and his partner are to be questioned the next day. Gradually, we learn more about what he did and discover that Asger’s commitment to saving Iben might also be an attempt to redeem himself.
Screenwriters Möller and Emil Nygaard Albertsen were smart to make Asger a temp because he makes some mistakes and also becomes much more emotionally invested than a seasoned 911 dispatcher would. Asger’s transitory job is to answer emergency calls and route them to the proper channels, but he’s a cop and he can’t help but try to take charge of this investigation—much to the chagrin of his coworkers and superiors.
The Guilty plays with perception—not visually, because it can’t and it never shows what’s happening on the other end of the phone—by revealing how some people choose to act with conviction even when they don’t have the full picture of a situation and the consequences that came result by acting on pure emotion.
With little other than Asger’s face to play with, the cinematography compensates with light, shadow, and color to mirror the emotions of the situation in all its twists and turns. The audio takes on equal footing to the images, playing up the zing of ringing phones, sighs and cries, sonic clicks, and beeps.
This is a remarkable feature debut from Möller proving that one does not need CGI, chases, and explosions to make a gripping, attention-getting film. While I will admit that I saw the twist coming sooner than I would have liked, The Guilty is still a solid and thought-provoking thriller.