No one really paid much attention to Locke, Steven Knight’s 2014 Tom Hardy starring experiment that took place entirely in one man’s car as he drives to London and attempts to avoid the slow destruction of a life he built so judiciously. It was an attempt to see how much tension and intrigue can be generated from one man in one place talking on a phone to disembodied voices. It put a lot of pressure on Hardy to deliver the goods, and generally passed the test with ease.
Now, four years later, Danish director Gustav Moller has made his version of the conceit. Chosen by Denmark to be their nominee for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars, The Guilty stars Jakob Cedergren as Asgar, a police officer working a shift as a dispatcher for emergency services. It’s a rather boring experience nearing its end, mostly consisting of dealing with drunks and people being mugged by prostitutes, but when he receives a call from Iben (voice of Jessica Dinnage) and discovers that she’s apparently been kidnapped by her ex-husband and is calling for help under the guise of ringing her daughter, he springs into action. Working with the local dispatcher in the area, Asgar races against time to find the car and save Iben even after his shift ends, taking matters into his own hands to save this woman even as it becomes clearer that perhaps not everything is as it seems.
Just like Locke, this is a film entirely predicated on one man attempting to solve problems from afar relying almost entirely on phone calls to do so. And just like Ivan Locke, Asgar is a man motivated in part by the actions of his past, ones that he regrets and feel don’t represent his sense of self and moral courage. Indeed, what he’s done (a mystery throughout the film, though there are references to an impending court date the next day). This leads to a near monomaniacal desire to solve this problem and make up for the mistakes he’s made and the problems he couldn’t solve himself, and that’s always a dangerous motivation when there’s real stakes on the line. Even as his shift comes to an end, he barricades himself in an office to continue to monitor the situation, bending all sorts of rules and norms as the events grow potentially dire. He’s all in, and there’s no way he isn’t seeing it through to the end.
Obviously, the constraints on the form make sure The Guilty isn’t going to be a visual marvel, confined to one location and a series of close-ups, focused on Asgar’s reactions more than anything. He’s got all the pressure on his shoulders, expected to give us all the emotion, all the intrigue we can get simply from his tone of voice and facial expressions. It’s very much a movie that lives or dies on Cedergren’s furrowed brow, and he passes the test with ease. And compared to a movie like Locke, The Guilty gets to rely on suspense and intrigue to help compensate for its lack of on-screen action. It’s a movie with a twist, which can tend to make or break things, but Moller, alongside Emil Nygaard Albertsen, has crafted a tight and satisfying screenplay that keeps the momentum going and takes advantage of its premise in enjoyable ways.
It’s easy for a movie like The Guilty to fly under the radar. It didn’t get much of a release in the States, and it seems its most likely chance at recognition would be as an Oscar nominee (though its likelihood of winning in the year of Roma is slim to none). Hopefully its novel premise could attract some eyeballs, because this is the sort of film that rewards those who search off the beaten path. Those looking for a taut, suspenseful drama with a different perspective will be richly rewarded.