The Guilty is a clever, thoroughly engrossing film from Denmark that marks the directorial debut of Swedish-born Gustav Möller, who also co-wrote the screenplay. This marks his first effort since graduating from film school, and he made it with a bare-bones crew consisting of fellow students. Only leading man Jakob Cedergren is an experienced professional.
Möller made sure the story was one he could fully realize, while providing himself with a major challenge: it all takes place inside one office, with a brief detour to an adjoining room. That office is the headquarters of emergency services—what we would call 911. Unlike here in the States, in Denmark the operation is manned by police. Our protagonist is there as a kind of punishment while an internal review case is pending. He hopes to be out on the street, where he feels at home, sometime soon. This and other elements of his backstory are imparted to us piecemeal over the course of the picture.
Because this is only a temporary assignment, he isn’t as knowledgeable as his colleagues about how to handle emergency calls—and, more important, how to keep a professional distance. Alas, he can’t help himself after he receives a call from a woman who has apparently been abducted and is being driven somewhere against her will. Using the latest technology, he makes decisions and assumptions that reveal his inexperience in a series of twists that keep us guessing what is really happening right to the end.
The highly-charged film reminded me of a radio play, because so much of it takes place off-screen, its key events revealed to us through what we hear on the protagonist’s telephone headset. (To avoid the feeling of a radio show he had his supporting actors in a separate room, talking “live” to Cedergren and adding verisimilitude to the drama.)
This import reminded me of Steven Knight’s Locke (2013), which features Tom Hardy talking on his cell phone while driving for nearly 90 minutes. It’s audacious and brilliant. The Guilty is in that class. Jakob Cedergren is completely convincing in the lead and carries the film without overblown histrionics. No wonder it won the Audience Award for world cinema at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
The Guilty is the work of a real talent, an impassioned storyteller. I hope the release of this movie will lead to other opportunities for Gustav Möller. It will be a pleasure to watch his career take wing.