“Tom Hardy in ‘Locke’ meets Halle Berry in ‘The Call’” sounds like the kind of absurd pitch you’d hear from an over-zealous fictional producer in a broad Tinseltown satire — yet it’s not entirely the wrong number for “The Guilty,” a high-concept, low-budget and skilfully muscle-tensing Danish thriller to which you can imagine more than a couple of eager Tinseltown execs angling for the remake rights.
Anchored by a performance of sturdy, simmering resolve by the reliable Jakob Cedergren, as an emergency police dispatcher who picks up on a kidnapping case with more than meets the ear, Gustav Möller’s short, taut debut feature never leaves the claustrophobic confines of the call center, but builds a vivid aural suspense narrative through the receiver, all while incrementally unboxing the visible protagonist’s own frail mental state. Notwithstanding some forgivable contrivances in the otherwise tidy execution, international distributors are likely to speed-dial “The Guilty” following its competition berths in Sundance and Rotterdam.
Only a few minutes into “The Guilty” — which operates swiftly with its storytelling throughout, clocking in at a crisp 85 minutes — hints are dropped that strong, sharp-jawed Asger (Cedergren) isn’t the sympathetic ear you’d typically find on the other end of a 911 call. “It’s your own fault, isn’t it?” he chides one inebriated, paranoid caller; later, he advises the cop he’s dispatching to another mild emergency to “let him sit and stew in it a bit.” No surprise, then, that manning the phones turns out not to be his original duty. A police officer who has been removed from the beat for reasons only gradually implied, Asger’s psychological fuse is evidently on the short side — only one of several contributing sources of tension in this tightly wound chamber piece.
He snaps more dedicatedly to attention, however, when he takes an initially cryptic call from Iben (Jessica Dinnage, never seen but a shivery, affecting vocal prescence), a young mother of two insinuating that she’s been kidnapped by her volatile ex-husband Michael (Johan Olsen). Her call, made from the van in which he’s driving her to an unknown destination, triggers some fast-on-his-fingers detective work from Asger, as he simultaneously attempts to pinpoint her moving location and backtrack to the possible circumstances of her abduction — a trail that leads to a bigger picture of horrifying domestic unrest. To say much more would be to interfere with the film’s expert wrangling of its audience’s collective suspicions: Möller, who shares screenplay credit with Emil Nygaard Albertsen, staggers his revelations so as to keep the viewer’s mind’s-eye impression of Iben’s plight at once palpable and malleable, the human stakes and concerns of the drama shifting with each excavated detail.
You wouldn’t expect a film set in real time, across two poky adjoining rooms, would have much space for A and B storylines. Yet “The Guilty” — the loaded title of which, needless to say, can be applied to multiple characters in this unhappy scenario — braids them rather deftly, cluing us ever more into Asger’s personal and professional crises as the situation at hand spirals out of his deskbound control. (Only on occasion do these respective breakdowns seem too neatly or implausibly twinned, or veer too far into maverick-cop cliché.) Amid passing mentions of a pending court case and previous workplace discord, a shadow of police brutality is slowly shaded into his background.
If the film operates as both a quick procedural thriller and a slower-burning character study, its mystery is shared across both modes. Shot mostly in peering, invasive closeup by cinematographer Jasper Spanning, Cedergren carries the whole with tight-nerved physical and vocal intensity, progressively externalizing the rage of a character who tries his best not to be read; it’s his most generous showcase since Thomas Vinterberg’s “Submarino.” Meanwhile, Spanning and production designer Gustav Pontoppidan light and design the office space with appropriately utilitarian drabness, giving the imagination little inclination — nor much room — to wander from Asger and his stern, strained brow.
It’s sound editor Oskar Skriver, however, who makes the most of the film’s minimalist setup, brilliantly filling in a highly specific sonic atmosphere of on-the-hoof panic on the other end of the line, and playing it effectively against the dead air of the call center. As in Steven Knight’s aforementioned, phone-driven man-in-a-jam exercise “Locke,” there’s an element of “The Guilty” that would work as a bang-up radio play, though you’d miss the drama playing out across our troubled hero’s stoically tormented expression: Visually, it’s a near-one-man-show, only with multiple lives hanging in the balance.