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The Guilty

Set in a police call centre and making the most of its single location, this gripping Danish thriller doesn't disappoint.
By Sarah Ward
February 28, 2019
By Sarah Ward
February 28, 2019

UPDATE: April 20, 2020: The Guilty is available to stream via SBS On Demand, Google Play and YouTube.


Some time in the not-too-distant future, Jake Gyllenhaal will sit in a nondescript cubicle, strap on a headset and try to save a woman's life. He'll do so while playing a police officer who's been demoted to phone duties, tasked with taking emergency calls, who suddenly finds himself talking to a kidnapping victim as her abduction is in progress. The camera won't move from his grey office location as he frantically attempts to resolve the fraught situation, and the movie will be all the more gripping for it. But no matter how effective this forthcoming flick is (or not, depending on how it turns out), exceptional Danish actor Jakob Cedergren and stellar thriller The Guilty will always have gotten there first.

An English-language remake of Gustav Möller's Oscar-shortlisted debut was always bound to happen. It's the kind of high-concept film that Hollywood loves, regardless of where the idea came from. Tense Ryan Reynolds vehicle Buried, the involving, Tom Hardy-starring Locke, and Halle Berry's awful The Call have all played with aspects of the same concept, however The Guilty might just be the best of the talk-heavy bunch. With claustrophobic visuals and an uneasy mood, it's not simply smart, savvy and suspenseful, although each of those descriptions apply. More than that, this single-setting, real-time screw-turner is downright masterful in achieving its aim — that is, ensuring that one guy making and taking phone calls ranks among the most intense 85-minute periods in cinema history.

In a standout role that deserves to bring Cedergren to broader attention, the Danish TV mainstay plays Asger Holm, a short-tempered, nearly-axed cop who couldn't be unhappier with his current assignment. One call virtually bleeds into the next in his frustrated mind, until a particularly fearful plea for assistance stands out. Iben's (Jessica Dinnage) story is distressing from the outset, involving domestic violence, being whisked away from home against her will, and two young kids left behind to fend for themselves. And so Holm springs into action, doing everything he can without leaving the phone to track down the kidnapped woman, as well as her reportedly explosive ex-husband (Johan Olsen), before it's too late.

The immense skill required to not only engage and excite an audience's imagination, but to truly activate it, can't be underestimated. While the printed word achieves the feat with frequency, cinema typically prefers to be more explicit. Even when mystery is involved, movies tend to avoid relegating their most thrilling moments to spectators' heads — the same is true for the bulk of their action and drama, for that matter. Streamlined without ever proving simplistic, The Guilty takes the opposite approach, forcing its viewers' minds to fire on all available cylinders. The details shown on screen are far from sparse, including the range of emotion on offer from the picture's controlled but expressive leading man, and more subplots than one might expect given the movie's premise. But even as cinematographer Jasper Spanning spends much of the film's running time honing in on Cedergren's piercing, pensive eyes, the tale that's literally told via snippets of conversation couldn't be more vivid.

Thank Möller's tight, taut script, as penned with economical but evocative precision with co-writer Emil Nygaard Albertsen. Thank their star as well, once again. And, with hearty enthusiasm, thank the craftspeople responsible for creating the film's fine-tuned soundscape. The fields of sound editing and sound mixing can confuse even the most dedicated cinephiles come Oscars time each year, with the former referring to finding and assembling individual sources of audio, and the latter involving the act of stitching them all together. Here, both disciplines are on show, although experienced sound editor Oskar Skriver has done a particularly astute job of finding the right sound for every single moment — and making audiences hang on each and every voice and noise.

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