Film review | The Guilty: End of the line

Taut and minimal, Gustav Möller’s single-location thriller sees a demoted police officer grasping at redemption through an emergency call-centre booth

Jakob Cedergren is Asger Holm, a disgraced police officer who exercises a hero complex at the emergency call centre booth he’s been demoted to as he awaits the outcome of a court sentence
Jakob Cedergren is Asger Holm, a disgraced police officer who exercises a hero complex at the emergency call centre booth he’s been demoted to as he awaits the outcome of a court sentence

In a time when expanded superhero universes flood the big screen and sprawling TV series are easily available on our favourite streaming services, there’s something quite refreshing about encountering a film so minimal and stripped down that it’s set entirely in one location.

Trust the Danes to take the helm of something daring but that still generates enough attention to be selected for the country’s Academy Awards shortlist for Best Foreign Language Film. With The Guilty, director Gustav Möller -- working off a script penned by himself and Emil Nygaard Albertsen – trains his camera all but exclusively on Jakob Cedergren.

Set in real time over the course of a particularly turbulent night, The Guilty puts disgraced police officer Asger Holm through the wringer. An act of misconduct has him demoted from the streets and into the cramped confines of a Stockholm emergency call centre, where he is to spend the night replying to distress calls of varying intensity, while metaphorically biting his nails at the prospect of the coming day; when a court case is set to decide the future of his career.

But his personal woes take a back seat when a kidnapped woman gets in touch. Unable to allow the procedure to take its standard bureaucratic route, Asger throws himself into the case, with potentially devastating results looming on the horizon.

Aided along by unshowy and judicious editing by Carla Luffe, Möller crafts a fine thriller out of minimal materials to impressive results. But more than the attention-grabbing minimalism of its visual set-up, it’s the script that shines – because it has to.

Having precisely two major scene changes – that is, from one room to another – the film has to rely on the talk to deliver the thrills. And it does, miraculously enough.

While on the face of it, the staging might make one think of a theatrical production, the emotional heft of it all is purely cinematic – close-ups and slow pans are left to punctuate key moments and differentiate the ebb and flow of the story, where more dramatic cuts and scene changes would have done that work in a more conventional production.

It is also, of course, a masterful showcase for Asger Holm’s substantial talents. Laconic at first – you’d be tempted to assume that a steely ‘northern’ composure is at play – his subtle unravelling makes for an engaging arc, and his face is all we’ve got to go on.

The verdict

With a gripping though un-showy central performance by Jakob Cedergren as the tortured Asger Holm, The Guilty unspools with no slack, taking full advantage of its single location setting to deliver a simple and effective take on the thriller genre that allows for no frills, while never skimping on the suspense. Co-writer/director Gustav Möller will be one to watch. Though of course, an American remake is already in the offing...

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