The Danish real-time single-set thriller The Guilty (Den skyldige 2018), debut feature of writer-director Gustav Möller, is a trip and a half. Asger (Jakob Cedergren) is relegated to emergency response operator while a case he’s entangled in goes through the courts. He doesn’t like it, but he plays nice. Then he gets a call from Iben (Jessica Dinage), who says she’s been kidnapped in a van. Despite everyone telling him to just do his job, Asger feels responsible for getting this woman safely back to her two young children, and his personal overinvolvement proves to be his downfall.
The entire film takes place at Asger’s call center. He’s a man of action who wants nothing more than to return to patrolling the streets, and like in Locke (2013), he (and we viewers who can’t but closely identify with him) is frustrated at being physically confined to chair and headset while the real action goes on elsewhere, outside his direct control. (The voice acting and Philip Flindt’s sound editing are killer.) This focus on problem-solving is the hallmark of the action-thriller genre, so we’re doubly frustrated by the setup. We viscerally feel Asger’s annoyance when his superiors (rightfully) withhold information and support, and greatly admire his patience and tact when Iben’s daughter Mathilde (Katinka Evers-Jahnsen) needs comforting before she’s willing to hang up the phone.
But as the film explodes Asger’s basic presumptions one by one, we realize that it’s precisely these humanizing moments that Asger should’ve spent more time exploring, moments that we’re complicit in willing him to ignore. It’s Oedipus Rex minus the incest, replacing the hubris of royal prerogative with that of state authority (and of straight White maleness). In a story where the best of intentions paves a fast track to hell, it takes an extraordinary act for Asger to begin to set things right.
The story is supported by Möller’s focused but sometimes heavy-handed direction, and sharp editing by Carla Luffe. Minute shifts in camera attention (shot by Jasper J. Spanning) effectively draw us into Asger’s headspace. Two moments stand out. The only time Asger goes physically berserk is when his emotions are too complex for words, transforming oral expression to bodily outburst. And the final shot perfectly symbolizes exactly how much redemption Asger deserves: He dials on his personal cell, ready to make amends, as a fluorescent ceiling light wanly backlights him through a semi-transparent door window.