“The Guilty,” Denmark’s Oscar entry for best foreign-language film, is set entirely inside the grubby, low-lit confines of a police station and focuses almost entirely on the workings of its lone protagonist, Asger Holm (Jakob Cedergren), an emergency dispatcher who is racing against time to rescue a woman he believes has been abducted by her estranged husband. Despite, or perhaps because of, these constraints, it’s one of the most cinematically alive movies of the year.
Gustav Möller, in his feature film directorial debut (he also co-wrote the film with Emil Nygaard Albertsen), has such an assured style that I never for a moment had that cooped-up feeling that often descends on me while watching movies set in a single enclosed location. (It helps that the film’s running time is a brisk 85 minutes.) From the standpoint of craftsmanship, the film is a textbook example of how much can be done with so little.
None of this would matter much if the actor who is in almost every frame was not a spellbinder. Möller is smart enough to let Cedergren’s hard-edged face carry the action. When we first see him, Asger is biding his time until his late-night shift ends by fielding pleas from an array of callers. He has a wry knowingness in these early scenes. A frantic man claims he has been mugged by a woman, a drug addict thinks he may be overdosing, and so on. Asger is abrupt but not entirely unfeeling with these callers. Because the response center has traced the mugged man’s call to a notorious red-light district, Asger recognizes that he was almost certainly robbed by a prostitute. To the drug addict, he commiserates up to a point but then adds, “It’s your own fault, isn’t it?”
Asger doesn’t want to be in this job and it is soon revealed that, because of some egregious incident during an arrest, he was recently demoted from his role as a police officer. There is a court case the morning after his shift ends, and his reinstatement hangs in the balance. Even without the constant barrage of frantic phone calls, he would still be on edge.
But then a call comes in that rouses the best in him: his smarts, his valor, his compassion. A whispery woman, Iben (Jessica Dinnage, whom we do not see but only hear as she speaks on the phone), makes it known to Asger that her violent husband has abducted her in his car, leaving behind her two young children. Through a series of intensely clever, split-second machinations, Asger is able to determine, among other leads, the make and model of the car, and he sets in motion a high-speed police chase.
But nothing in this scenario pans out quite the way you expect it to. We are drawn into the same morally ambiguous vortex as Asger, and piecing together what is really going on is almost as satisfying as figuring out the clues of a first-rate detective story. We may not be able to see what is happening on the other end of the phone but, in a sense, this only enhances our involvement in the action. What we imagine is going on outside that dank dispatch center probably has more aliveness than anything we might have been shown.
Cedergren is a full-on camera presence, not some stalwart stiff in the standard Hollywood mode. (It’s only a question of time, alas, before Hollywood remakes this film.) He may at first come across as impassive, but the more we see of his face in close-up, the more we notice shadings and grace notes. I was reminded of Tom Hardy’s bravura solo performance in “Locke,” which was set almost entirely in a speeding car. Cedergren brings a level of understanding to the role that lifts it out of the police procedural genre. He shows us a man who must balance his compassion for Iben with his compulsion to see justice done.
Because Cedergren is so good in this movie, I’m not sure we needed the back story about Asger’s own fraught past. It sets up a moral equivalence – the guilty among the guilty – that is dubious and weighted with excess baggage. It is enough that Asger is tormented by the world around him without overdoing the torment within. But this is the only pretentious note in a movie otherwise pretension-free. Grade: A- (Rated R for language.)