Film critic Scott Wilson reviews Denmark’s Best Foreign Language Film entry for the forthcoming Oscars, a quiet thriller about one man, two phones, and a thrilling kidnapping plot.
The Guilty – ★★★★☆
When they go loud, you go quiet. With Halloween slashing its way to series-best box office takings and Bohemian Rhapsody making serious bank in the UK, these larger than life films are impossible to compete with. The Guilty, Denmark’s entry for Best Foreign Language award at the forthcoming Oscars, scales everything back to one man, two rooms, and a few phonecalls.
It’s not immediately cinematic. A real-time thriller about a man responding to emergency calls could be a BBC4 Scandi-noir drama. Heck, it could be a radio play. But Gustav Möller’s directorial debut follows the likes of Locke, Buried, and Phonebooth by forcing the audience into close proximity with its central character in a way only something cinematic can.
Jakob Cedergren is Asger Holm, coming to the end of a shift on his last day of desk duty. He’s been confined to answering phones for reasons which reveal themselves through a number of personal calls taken during the film, and further hinted at through his maverick approach to dealing with callers in need of help. Rarely empathetic, his tough love responses don’t exude a great bedside manner.
Absent-mindedly working his way through his duties until it’s time to clock out, he perks up when a quietly sobbing woman called Iben covertly communicates with him. She’s talking like Holm is her daughter, tricking her captor into thinking she’s phoned home, not the emergency services. Holm has little to go on, he can only ask yes or no questions, and Iben doesn’t know much.
There are questions of morality and forgiveness that will push the tolerance of some viewers.
It’s selling The Guilty short to say that’s all it is, but it is. It works because of the literal space between phonecalls and the figurative space between our understanding of Holm and the man himself. Why he’s been assigned desk duty hangs over the film, with next to no exposition giving the game away. As the story develops, waiting for someone to call back begins to feel like hours when only seconds pass. Anyone who’s ever been expecting a call will know how tempting it is to pace round the room, and here it feels like every moment of inactivity is a step towards a loss of life.
Its emotional maturity is undoubtedly cinematic. There are questions of morality and forgiveness that will push the tolerance of some viewers, like Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri did earlier this year. It would be easy to wash your hands of the whole situation when things turn particularly nasty, but for those who stick with it, there is a real deft handling of both sympathy and empathy.
This is made all the more surprising when thinking back, an hour earlier, to Holm’s blasé attitude. A lone male figure, the film never invites him to monologue about his feelings, but the hint of a tear when he gets lost in thought is enough to suggest there’s more going on than we will ever know. The camera rarely leaves his face, smirking at the misfortune of others, flushing with frustration at bureaucracy, inactive with resignation.
He’s shot surrounded by muted colours in an office that never feels anything other than cold. It’s easy to understand why he puts so little effort into caring for others when his workspace feels so clinical; less lifesaver, more administrator. It’s on Cedergren to push against the drab, taking Holm from smug apathy to panicked determination. A red light draws attention to incoming calls, which at one point illuminates the whole room. Just like the absence of sound emphasises its return, the greys and dark greens embolden the haunting red, framing Holm in a state we feel uncomfortable witnessing. He’s stressed, resigned, maybe beyond reasoning. Are we scared for Iben or scared of Holm?
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The Guilty is satisfying, with enough of its questions answered to not feel cheated, even though its ‘less is more’ approach is its strongest asset. We see Holm act instinctively, believing what he is told, to a fault. Off of the streets, he’s lost his natural suspicion, instead submissive to the whims of those in need of help. Iben’s plight gives him something to believe in, finally the dour work leading to something that matters.
Despite the obvious thrill of the main kidnapping plot, it’s the change in Holm that makes the film stick. He doesn’t end his shift the man he was ninety minutes earlier, having finally invested in the work he was assigned to. He’s made to reckon with what put him there and exactly what his role is supposed to be in the world.
For something so small scale, The Guilty is quite remarkable. It flies by, and its gripping premise doesn’t sacrifice big ideas or character development which are essential in elevating something so simple. I loved it, and would hate for it to disappear among the Halloweens and Bohemian Rhapsodys.
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