The Guilty (Gustav Möller, 2018) 3 out of 4 stars.
The Guilty is the feature debut of Danish director Gustav Möller, and is a beautifully executed thriller that takes place entirely in one location, far away from the action, keeping the viewer hooked without showing much beyond the face of its protagonist. Indeed, the main visual landscape of the movie is actor Jakob Cedergren’s physiognomy, his expressive, haunted eyes telling us all we need to know about both his backstory and emotional state during the story’s central crisis. He plays police officer Asger Holm, taken off the streets (for reasons we eventually discover) to work in an emergency call center. Initially indifferent and almost cruel to those who phone in (“It’s your own fault”), he suddenly finds himself engaged, emotionally and intellectually, when an abducted woman manages to place a call from within the vehicle in which she is imprisoned.
Much as director Steven Knight did in his 2013 Tom Hardy-starring pic Locke, in which that actor drove to a fateful destination while having conversations on speakerphone, Möller tells his tale entirely through audio and reaction shots. As Asger races against time to save Iben, the woman who called, we watch him grow increasingly agitated, and the fact that we are right there with him, unable to see or know any more than he does, make us frightened, as well. Here, there’s no dramatic irony to save us. When the surprise twist happens, we’re as shocked as Asger.
The problem with the movie, however, is the ultimately unpleasant nature of that reveal. Masterfully put together as it may be, there is no escaping the nastiness and misanthropy at its core. Cedergren (Submarino) deserves kudos for a full-bore performance that is as raw as it gets, and Möller is finely attuned to every nuance of his actor’s behavior. As a study in acting, The Guilty is without sin. As a study in humanity, though, the film is hard to take. The world in 2018 can often seem a depressing place; how much more of this can we take? Perhaps it’s not fair to judge a work of art based on one’s mood over the state of our universe, but viewers of faint heart, beware: this may not be for you. Still, there’s hope for us as a species if we can at least offer our future heirs the knowledge that we knew we were doomed, accepted our guilt, and asked for forgiveness. Cut to black.
In Danish with English subtitles.