2018, R, 85 min. Directed by Gustav Möller. Starring Jakob Cedergren, Jessica Dinnage, Omar Shargawi, Johan Olsen, Jakob Ulrik Lohmann.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Oct. 19, 2018
Asger Holm (Cedergren) is not a good cop. That's made abundantly clear in the opening moments of Danish police drama The Guilty. After all, if he was a good cop, then he wouldn't be working the phones at a dispatch center. He's clearly very good at police work, discerning within seconds the dirty little secrets behind every caller – the john rolled by a hooker, the speed addict who's freaking out – and he gives them just as much time as he thinks they deserve. That's what makes him a bad cop, that dismissiveness and arrogance, the conviction that he's above it all, and that he will skate on whatever unnamed crime got him temporarily stuck on desk duty.
What causes this cloak of hubris to unravel is a call from Iben (Dinnage), who he quickly discerns has been kidnapped. The who, what, where, and why of her abduction is what drives Holm and the story, with one added wrinkle: He can't leave the station. Everything he does is by phone, whether it's trying to get what little information he can from Iben, or dispatching other agencies, or calling in favors from his partner, Rashid (Shargawi), who is also his prime defense witness in his upcoming misconduct hearing.
Such single-location dramas have long been a mainstay of TV, where a well-executed bottle episode (think Breaking Bad's "Fly") can be a quiet, defining moment for the show. Yet in film the convention often falls into dramatic hyperbole (think of Phone Booth's godlike sniper), or become afraid of their own high concept, and bolt for open space (cf The Call). However, this chilling, thrilling police procedural never once leaves the two adjoining rooms of the dispatch office. Moreover, the story never artificially raises the stakes, because the script (written by Möller and Emil Nygaard Albertsen) understands that a kidnapping in which the rescuer is as restrained as the victim is tense enough. So it's up to Cedergren to carry the lean, subtle drama. He does more than that: As a man becoming increasingly aware of his own limitations, he makes every heart-stopping, and often heart-wrenching, moment carry weight and motivation.
In his feature debut as a director, Möller (ably assisted by cinematographer Jasper Spanning, and subtle work from production designer Gustav Pontoppidan) strikes a perfect balance between the quiet intimacy of the phone calls, and the claustrophobia of Holm's increasing desperation. Without ever feeling stagy or theatrical, The Guilty is an exquisite reminder that all you need is four walls and a great performance.