Filmed entirely within an emergency call center, Danish director Gustav Möller’s The Guilty (Den skyldige) is a claustrophobic thriller that finds fascinating ways to spiritually transcend its confines. Pretty much the whole film consists of phone exchanges between Asger Holm (Jakob Cedergren), a police officer who has been temporarily demoted to working the phones, and others out in the field as he struggles to save a woman who is being abducted by her ex-husband. Möller handles that solid premise with artful suspense: Asger initially has to keep the tearful, terrified victim, Iben, on the phone as long as he can, telling her to pretend she’s speaking to her young daughter on the other line. Meanwhile, he’s barking orders to emergency dispatch, to the highway police, even to his old partner, who appears to be drunk and off-duty.
Asger’s job is merely to answer emergency calls and route them to the proper channels, but he can’t help but secretly take charge of this investigation. He doesn’t know precisely where Iben is; just that she and her abductor are in a white van heading north on a major highway. He also doesn’t know the exact history between the woman and her ex; he’s hoping that by snooping into their lives, he might be able to figure out their ultimate destination.
Asger, we already know, is not a stickler for rules: His demotion is related to a recent incident about which he and his partner are to be questioned the next day. Gradually, we learn more about what happened — and begin to sense that Asger’s dedication to saving Iben might also be an attempt to redeem himself.
Despite the simple, drab setting, Möller makes this character’s emotional journey a visual and sonic one as well. The sounds on the phone slowly open up, as we go from conversations between people in cars to wider spaces implied through effects and dialogue; this also winds up emphasizing Asger’s loneliness, his confinement, the limitations of his vision. As he tries to hide his efforts from those physically around him, the frame becomes tighter, darker, the lighting more creative; at one point late in the film, he’s bathed entirely in red.
Möller thus establishes a vital connection between the formal playfulness of his film and the moral vision of his story. He’s not content with just giving us a thrill ride; he wants also to challenge our assumptions of right and wrong, guilt and innocence. We may root for Asger’s willingness to bend the law to help Iben. But didn’t that same willingness also lead to the accusations against him? The Guilty beautifully demonstrates how people can act with absolute conviction even when they don’t have the full picture of a situation, and the monstrousness this can in turn lead to. And if that doesn’t speak to our time, then I don’t know what does.