Director: Gustav Moller
Cast: Jakob Cedergren
Length: 85 minutes
“Emergency Services, how can I help you?”
We’ve heard the voice. It’s disciplined, calm, and often, annoyingly procedural, almost like a call-center employee with a strict instruction sheet. There is no room for sentiment. Most thrillers have a desperate hero or heroine or potential murder victim desperately dialing for help – this is the first bot-like tone they hear at the other end of the line, before the nearest patrol car is summoned. The official Danish entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at next year’s Oscars puts a face to this tone. More importantly, it examines, with relentless suspense and a startling sense of humanity, the mentality of this voice. Jakob Cedergren is call dispatcher Asger Holm in Gustav Moller’s The Guilty, and there is not a shot in the single-room film when the camera is not fixated on his tense face. There is not a moment in the film when Asger Holm simply “responds” – he reacts. That’s what makes him both, the villain, and the hero, of the story.
The Guilty begins with two calls that are designed to demonstrate that Emergency Services responders are more than just human questionnaires. The first is by a hallucinating drug addict who thinks he is dying. The second is by a sheepish man who is ashamed to admit that his car has been stolen by a sex worker in the Red Light district. In both cases, Asger is the one who has to read their voices. Here, it becomes evident that his job involves a sharp psychological dimension – a detective-like meticulousness that combines method and instinct to “rate” the level of danger and distinguish panic from paranoia. All this, through a short phone-call: Asger is merely a “Mindhunter” of the more common variety.
The protagonist has a thankless, crushing job, but for 85 real-time minutes, actor Jakob Cedergren makes it appear like his is a superhero-origins story that an everyman needs, not the one our movies deserve
The third call alerts the natural protector in him. It is by a kidnapped woman named Iben, who speaks in code from a van speeding down a highway. Her voice is childlike, terrified and tender – Asger has to understand her situation, suppress his allergy of rules and take control by mentally occupying her scene. In the process, we learn more about his own situation, and why he is different from his robotic colleagues. Making a haunted cop the protagonist of a film like this is a clever decision – he is vulnerable in a profession that requires him to ascertain the vulnerability of strangers. He becomes the classic movie underdog swimming against the shackles of authority, defying his seniors and wearing a cape – all from the confines of a computer desk. This expertly paced crisis, then, raises many worthwhile questions: How must it feel to be the first – and sometimes, the last – hope of survival for humans in peril? How frustrating is it to aid their rescue without actually rescuing them, to sit on a chair and engineer the fading fates of random people? Does this habit of passive action then seep into the personal life of trained professionals?
Imagine having to swoop in and out of a desperate mind, say a few comforting words and then pass on the “duty” of saving them to uniformed cops who will most likely get all the credit. It’s a thankless, crushing job, but for 85 real-time minutes, actor Jakob Cedergren makes it appear like his is a superhero-origins story that an everyman needs, not the one our movies deserve. He delivers one of the most riveting performances of 2018, playing a character that must project the images and pathos of multiple parallel narratives using his face as a cinemascope screen. You can feel his lips go dry, or the soundscape of the film emulate the soundscape of his attention – often, he zones out when Iben is speaking, and the ambient sounds fade away to pinpoint the personality of their connection. At other times, a faint drumbeat-like score hides itself in the rhythmic folds of the windscreen wiper of the van he hears on the call. Locke, starring Tom Hardy as a man whose life unravels as he talks on his car-phone, is the only other film in recent memory that bears a similar physicality. But Cedergren’s frames are more unforgiving, given that he occupies an office setting that allows him littler (emotional) space to maneuver in.
Swedish director Gustav Moller entrusts in him the responsibility of emoting a script that revels in choosing the most un-filmable story to tell the other stories. Stories of an ex-police partner, of a concerned boss, of two infants whose parents have abandoned them at home. For instance, most other filmmakers might have opted to employ the more kinetic perspective of Iben – abducted, mobile, mysterious – to suggest the resounding twist at the end. Hers makes for an equally empathetic and hard-hitting story, a film low-budget Hollywood directors might have lined up to make.
Director Gustav Moller seems to be aware of The Guilty’s unique vantage point in context of the genre thriller. Perhaps that’s why he has rejected remake offers from around the world
I had recently written on why European (and especially Scandinavian) filmmakers veer more towards the dramatic expression of workspace movies – the climate (it’s raining outside in The Guilty), vast landscapes and isolated domestic culture (Asger is separated, he uses work as an escape) are major influences to the cinema they make. Moller seems to be aware of The Guilty’s unique vantage point in context of the genre thriller. Perhaps that’s why he has rejected remake offers from around the world. Not every film, after all, might have been able to amplify the urgency of a responder’s attitude by extending the call beyond work-shift hours. In no other region might this truth have dawned upon us: Asger won’t be paid extra, yet he is paying his dues.