By Grace Zhou
Occasionally, film reviews begin with a visual description of a particularly memorable scene – one that embodies or elucidates the film as a whole. All good films have at least one: the unnerving introduction of Hannibal Lecter, the kitchen scene in “Jurassic Park,” the shower killing in “Psycho.” But “The Guilty” might be an exception. This gripping Danish thriller takes place entirely in an emergency call center and unfolds through a series of phone conversations.
Former police officer Asger Holm has been demoted to emergency dispatcher. At his desk, he fields trivial emergencies with apathy – until a traumatized woman named Iben calls him claiming to have been kidnapped. While Asger switches between calling co-workers and people connected to Iben, he slowly unravels the details of her abduction, sometimes through extreme means.
As Asger scrambles to discover what happened, the audience is given its own mystery: What did Asger do before the film started, and why is he so invested in taking care of Iben? Jakob Cedergren, an accomplished Danish actor, disappears into the flawed hero. He’s given a narrow range, essentially spanning determination to perturbation, but Cedergren deftly portrays its nuances through piercing blue eyes and a husky voice. Given that the film almost entirely comprises claustrophobic close-ups on his face, his performance is especially crucial.
Those on the other side of the phone also hold up their ends: Jessica Dinnage excels as Iben, wringing every possible ounce of emotional distress into the receiver and captivating our empathy. Katinka Evers-Jahnsen, playing her daughter, is also phenomenal, and not just for a child actor.
We never once glimpse their faces or the world outside the stark and dreary call center. It’s a gimmick that should be limiting, in theory, but actually brings a transcendence to “The Guilty.” The brilliant sound design constructs, colors and shades the settings for us. Miles of transportation are signified with a door slam. Locations pop out of contextual ambient noises. Horror is conveyed through utter silence. (Nothing is quite as terrifying as your own imagination.) Entirely dependent on other people’s abilities to convey information through a phone, we anxiously wait in the dark with Asger, literally and figuratively, hanging onto every word.
Although the film’s strength lies in its audio, debut director Gustav Moller still creates an inventive visual experience. He plays with a red light, window frames and office lighting to evoke some beautiful images. In one shot, after hearing a heavy piece of information, Asger slowly closes the blinds until the room he’s in becomes barely discernible. In conjunction with a rare bout of silence, it gives a needed moment of contemplation.
The story of “The Guilty,” which expectedly contains unexpected twists and red herrings, is engaging enough on its own in case that the cinematography ever gets repetitive. The grand reckoning at the end makes complete sense while remaining stubbornly un-guessable. Leading up to it, screenwriters Emil Nygaard Albertsen and Moller insert some dialogue that’s noticeably more dramatic and poetic than realistic. For such a tense film, it provides another welcome reprieve.
“The Guilty” packs in a heart-pounding crime thriller in its terse 85 minutes, complete with chilling plot twists. In addition to its thrills, however, the film is about redemption, justice and ethics of law enforcement officials. Asger oversteps his authority without hesitation, believing it’s for a greater cause. But what if he ends up doing more harm than good?
Verdict: “The Guilty” delivers a suspenseful, chilling and ultimately satisfying experience.
Contact Grace Zhou at gkschou ‘at’ stanford.edu.