There may nothing harder to pull off in cinema than making an effective single location thriller. The Danish thriller from director Gustav Möller, The Guilty, doesn’t simply pull off being an effective thriller set in a single location, but it’s deftly able to pull the audience in and continually raise its stakes while performing the difficult feat of telling us what’s happening and not showing us. The Guilty is Denmark’s submission for this year’s foreign language Oscar, and it’s chances are good as it’s the best single location thriller since 2014’s Locke.
Asger Holm (Jakob Cedergren) is a police officer who has been taken off the streets and assigned to working emergency dispatch. Möller and co-writer Emil Nygaard Albertsen employ the power of suggestion as to why Asger has been moved off the streets, and we’re informed that his fate will decided the next day at a court proceeding. Asger receives the typical calls on the job – bicycle accidents, a man mugged by a prostitute in the red light district. But while his shift is winding down, Asger takes a call from a woman claiming she’s been abducted. She’s crying on the phone and unable to give many details. From his desk, Asger is trying to do all he can to figure out the location of the woman to little avail. He’s able to contact the woman’s young daughter and dispatch a patrol car to check on the woman’s children. With the looming threat of violence and limited information, Asger is scrambling to get help to this woman before it’s too late.
The Guilty is simply a lean thriller, no fat or filler to be found in its intense 90 minutes. Gustav Möller doesn’t try to do too much stylistically to amplify the tension. It’s direction that allows its story and leading actor to do the heavy lifting. For a film that’s mostly dialogue over the telephone, it’s astonishing the level of suspense that Möller is able to create and then build upon. Much of that is due to the powerful performance by Jakob Cedergren, who has to maintain Asger as a man trying to preserve his professional life amidst a crisis in which he’s almost entirely powerless. It’s when Asger is not speaking that Cedergren’s performance finds the most of its power, a wordless combination of frustration and anxiety that is all too palpable.
I don’t want to give away all the twists and turns that occur within The Guilty, but I will say that all of them are effective and none of them feel like the contrivances of a screenwriter’s fancy. There’s an ominous tone that is struck throughout the film and even when you suspect something shocking is coming the film never fails in making those moments land in a way that’ll make you gasp. The Guilty is Gustav Möller first feature film and it marks the arrival of a serious talent, one with the ability to craft suspense simply through character and dialogue. Jakob Cedergren anchors this breathtaking thriller, which is unrelenting in its tension as it takes you on a harrowing ride within the single confines of an emergency dispatch office. The Guilty culminates in a powerful, haunting conclusion that leaves the audience as shaken as its main character. And you thought you were having a bad day at work.
An intense single location thriller from director Gustav Möller, The Guilty creates tension and never lets the audience go due to deft direction, efficient writing, and a powerful performance by Jakob Cedergren.