'The Guilty' Review: Sometimes One Location Is All You Really Need

Danish filmmaker Gustav Möller makes his feature debut with a smart and stylish thriller set entirely in a police dispatcher's office.

The Guilty
Magnolia Pictures

We’ve all seen our fair share of thrillers with some kind of storytelling gimmick. The idea of telling a complete story within a single setting is nothing especially new, but more often than not this idea cannot sustain itself for a feature-length runtime. This is not the case with Gustav Möller’s The Guilty. Here the singular location is neither a gimmick nor a budgetary restriction but an integral part of the film; The Guilty is set entirely in a dispatch office because it has to be to make the story work. You’d be amazed what happens when you take a clever idea and make it absolutely integral to the story you want to tell.

Asger Holm (Jakob Cedergren) is a police officer on the bench. Since being investigated by his department following an unspecific accident in the field, Holm has been forced to trade in his patrol car for a dispatcher headset as he awaits an internal audit. This means fielding endless phone calls for minor grievances: low-stakes muggings, car accidents, and more than a few drunken mishaps where the caller can barely provide Holm with the information he needs to send an ambulance. Before clocking out for the evening, Holm takes one last call, walking a woman through a coded conversation where she shares that she’s been kidnapped by her husband and is in need of help. From there, Holm engages in a game of cat-and-mouse with the husband, using the clues available to him to unearth their destination in the hope that he can keep the woman from being hurt.

Since The Guilty is effectively a one-man show, the choice of actor is essential to the film’s success. That’s what makes Cedergren’s performance as Asger Holm so impressive. This is character development by degrees; when we first meet Holm, he’s frustrated with his suspension and performs his phone duties with a mixture of condescension and boredom. As the situation he finds himself in expands, Holm doesn’t so much change as challenge, pushing back on his own assumptions of what it means to be a good police officer as his decisions reveal unexpected complexity. The film builds to, not away from, an existential crisis for its main character, a welcome change from countless movies about law enforcement that subtly reinforce the status quo. Holm is only a good police officer when he’s not acting like a police officer at all.

This slow process of building Holm out as a character allows the film to deliver some emotional wallops in its final minutes. It should come as no surprise that some of the information provided over the phone proves to be unreliable, but the impact these moments have on the central character are profound. Holm is a man who has never been given a reason to question his own instincts; as the central mystery unravels, so does the worldview he has created for himself. In fact, the writing in The Guilty is so precise, the mystery so meticulously progressed, that I would love to see how Möller’s film would work as a stage adaptation. Everything needed for an excellent black box production is provided, and even the confines of a live show would only require minimal changes to the story. The fact that this film would work in multiple mediums is one of the finest compliments you could offer it as a narrative.

For those who follow the Oscars, it’s also interesting to watch The Guilty with the knowledge that it is Denmark’s official submission for the Best Foreign Language Film category. Möller’s film is a masterclass in sound design, subtly altering each phone conversation to demonstrate the increasing impact they are having on Holm’s state of mind. This suggest a movie altogether too slight for Academy Award consideration, but the technique on display — the escalating phone conversations, each with a slightly different degree of warm or background noise — creates something as taunt as compact as any of the year’s best thrillers. It is a film on par with other single-setting thrillers, movies like Grand Piano or Pontypool that create entire worlds using only a single voice in the protagonist’s ear. Perhaps this isn’t a conventional award season favorite, but that says more about our conception of what an Oscar movie should be, not what The Guilty has to offer audiences.

For many, The Guilty is the type of festival discovery that rewards you for skipping out on the big releases. Whether it survives as a finalist, the fact that Möller’s film is even in Academy Award conversations will hopefully encourage more people to seek it out once it becomes available. What seems simple at first blush proves to be anything but; The Guilty should stand out as one of the best thrillers of the year for those lucky enough to catch it.

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Matthew is a feature writer for Film School Rejects and a freelance film critic at the Austin Chronicle. His writing can be found at /Film, RogerEbert.com, Playboy, and more.