Directed by Gustav Möller
If you had to pick a setting for a good horror film, what would you go with? Perhaps a haunted mansion by the sea? A wooden cabin in the snowy woods? Or maybe a post-apocalyptic city? These are all plausible options. But I bet few of you would have thought of a police call centre. Yet Danish writer/ director Gustav Möller’s gets so much tension and dread out of this one location, creating a high-octane suspense-thriller without hanging up the phone. It’s a real achievement and a reminder that one need not have a big budget to do a great movie: just a solid story with a smart script.
It’s late in Copenhagen and Asger (Cedergren) is working the night shift. Far from a natural operator, he’s been demoted to the communication room following a recent incident about which he and his partner are to be questioned the following day. The calls seem banal enough at first – folks taking something they shouldn’t have or doing something they shouldn’t have. And Asger meets them with a level of lofty, judgemental scorn that we may share in our heads, but know a professional should never say. In short, he isn’t a people person. His contempt for those he’s meant to help extends to letting a man who was robbed by a sex worker stew within the consequences of his poor decisions before sending help. It all changes when he gets a call from Iben (Dinnage), a woman who has been abducted by her ex-husband. Whilst his first task is to keep her on the line to be tracked, he later calls her children, who are worried sick at home, then his old partner. It’s an organic bit of world-building, with the jigsaw pieces of the plot gradually falling into place as each sheds new light. That this almost all happens in real time (the only notable jump is when Asger leaves his desk at the start) gives the minimalist piece a real sense of urgency.
To say more would be to ruin the film’s twists and turns. Suffice to say that it plays with audience expectations impeccably, challenging our assumptions as we are invited to resolve the situation along with Asger based on just partial information. In that respect, we are also complicit as events begin to unravel with the assumptions he is making when he fits in the gaps of the information he’s been given. We get it because we’re thinking these things too. This narrative choice sets up an easy rapport that with him, despite his initial standoffishness, keeping us invested in his journey whilst the circumstances become increasingly morally ambiguous.
Furthermore, we know from an early point that he’s done something wrong off-screen, and as its gradually revealed its rewarding to discover why this caller carries so much significance. It’s at once life-affirming and deeply disturbing adding up to a moment of serendipity when all the strands come together in a gut-punching finale. The movie expertly, and seemingly effortlessly, weaves a range of moods as it goes from playful beginnings to full-blown crisis and finally, maybe, a chance at redemption. Heck, it’s so effective that at one point I actually felt myself gasp. It’s an excellent mix of a thrill-ride and a powerful piece of human drama.
This balance is helped immensely by a strong central performance. Cedergren perfectly inhabits his role, gradually going from cynical, emotionally disconnected alpha male to being deeply vulnerable. It’s a rewarding through-line, seeing him gradually reveal himself with the loss of control. His arc is also reinforced visually, with the frame closing in as the pressure mounts and, later, him being completely bathed in the red of a siren. It’s unusual to hear, rather than see, a kidnapping flick unfold. In Möller’s assured hands nothing is lost from the format. But, given the immediacy and how rich a mental image he challenges us to create, a lot is gained from this thoroughly original approach. Moreover, although he’s an adept visualist, his naturalistic dialogue does much of the heavy lifting too. There are some descriptions evocative enough to make you squirm. But then the understated moments in there, including a poignant sequence where Asger and Iben connect over an idealised aquarium trip, also linger. These are the bits where it transcends its already unconventional genre shell, to reveal a sensitivity most writers go their whole career without capturing. In other words, to end on a fitting phrase, less is more.
The Guilty is available now on DVD, Blu-Ray and VOD.