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The disturbing single-location thriller The Guilty explores the problem with good intentions

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Gustav Möller’s feature directorial debut makes a taut, memorable drama out of police abuse of power

Photo: Sundance Institute

Welcome to Cheat Sheet, our brief breakdown-style reviews of festival films, VR previews, and other special event releases. This review comes from the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.

The unspoken hope of attending a film festival like Sundance is that you could just stumble upon some small, incredibly effective film that might otherwise have never crossed your radar. That’s precisely the case with The Guilty, an engrossing Danish thriller from first-time feature director Gustav Möller that’s playing in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition category.

The story of an emergency dispatcher who’s suddenly caught up in trying to solve a kidnapping from behind his desk, the movie takes place entirely in real time, and is set in just two tiny rooms. In less assured hands, that could end up playing like a gimmick or cheap gag, but thanks to Möller’s staging, a script full of twists, and a compelling performance from lead actor Jakob Cedergren, it’s a riveting, nerve-racking surprise — and it has a few things to say about how even the best intentions can lead to disturbing abuses of power.

What’s the genre?

It’s a minimalist thriller, using Cedergren’s performance, sound design, and some great vocal performances from the supporting cast to craft a movie that feels like much more than the sum of its parts.

What’s it about?

Police officer Asger Holm (Cedergren) has been demoted to desk work after some initially unexplained incident. He’s been working as an emergency phone dispatcher for Denmark’s version of 911, and as the movie opens, he’s wrapping up his last day on the job. Tomorrow he’ll face an inquiry about the mysterious incident, after which he expects to be back on the street with his partner.

Then Holm takes a call from a frightened woman named Iben (Jessica Dinnage, conveying an impressive array of emotion with just her voice), who says she’s been kidnapped, and is being driven by her captor to some unknown location. Holm scrambles, trying to help a police car pull over the van Iben is in before things can go too far. Then the call drops. Unable to get hold of Iben again, he instead tracks down the woman’s 6-year-old daughter, who tells him her father was the kidnapper. With nothing but a phone and computer at his disposal, Holm becomes a man obsessed, determined to rescue Iben.

What’s it really about?

It’s about the way we perceive the world around us — not in an objective, fair way, but in a way guided by our own biases, and our need to have purpose in the world. From the beginning of the film, Holm feels frustrated and demoralized by being stuck behind a desk, but then he gets the call from Iben. It instantly gives him a crime to solve, and a way to prove to himself that he’s still able to do some good in the world.

The film does its cleverest and most insidious work when it’s playing with that last idea. Holm sees the outlines of the case that he wants to see — one that gives him the opportunity to be a certain kind of hero — which leads him to make some tragic assumptions and miscalculations. The way he uses his authority to intervene ends up crossing moral boundaries. The Guilty ends up exploring intriguing, timely ideas about how the power handed to people like law enforcement officers can lead to hubris, arrogance, and violence.

Photo: Sundance Institute

Is it good?

The single-location thriller conceit can often end up playing like a low-budget gimmick rather than a creative choice, but Möller uses it to create a film that feels taut and claustrophobic. It also never looks cheap. The screenplay, which the director wrote with collaborator Emil Nygaard Albertsen, is full of genuinely surprising twists, along with the ones audiences may see coming. But it is able to use the sparse phone calls Holm has with Iben, the other dispatchers, and Holm’s own partner to create a fully realized world. The camera doesn’t leave the two rooms where Holm makes his phone calls, but the characters are so cleanly drawn, and their interactions are so authentic, that it’s easy to picture the outside world with full clarity.

While Möller is able to lend some surprising visual variety to what should be a staid, generic location, the performances ultimately carry the movie. Dinnage stands out as Iben, but this is unquestionably Jakob Cedergren’s film. The actor’s slow-motion meltdown as Holm tries to rescue Iben — all with the increasing pressure of the inquiry the following day bearing down on him — is striking to behold. It’s rare that an actor is given an opportunity to so completely dominate a film, and Cedergren takes advantage, turning every moment and glare into an opportunity for the audience to see how Holm is falling apart.

What should it be rated?

PG-13. There’s some minor profanity, and at various points characters talk about some horrifying things, but the movie is just a guy talking on the phone. How many problems could the MPAA really have with that?

How can I actually watch it?

The Guilty doesn’t have U.S. distribution set up yet, but this is the kind of movie that Amazon or Netflix should snatch up immediately. It’s a perfect fit for a streaming service — though it’s just as easy to imagine an English-language remake coming along soon.