It begins with a call. On the other line is a man sobbing, gasping for air, begging for help. But we’ll never see him. The Danish thriller The Guilty focuses instead on the bored police officer taking his distress call. Asger Holm (Jakob Cedergren) has little patience and no compassion for the ODing junkies, mugged johns, and whingeing cyclists who call in. He answers them with frustration or accusations, like “It’s your own fault, isn’t it?” He resents this job for being a temporary demotion, a punishment brought on by some scandalous on-the-job incident. But this is Asger’s last day in the call center. He’s nearly free. Then in comes a call that even this jaded cop can’t walk away from.
Her name is Iben, and she’s speaking strangely as if Asger were not emergency services, but a scared child who needs cajoling. At first, he sneers and assumes she’s intoxicated, but then realizes she’s in an unsafe situation with someone who can’t know she’s calling for help. He realizes she’s been kidnapped, and a sense of purpose reinvigorates him. Apparently, Denmark’s got way swankier tech than our 911. As soon as Asger picks up, Iben’s number is traced to reveal her name and offer a general location on an animated map, based on the nearest cell tower. But when she hangs up abruptly, Asger must find more clues to pinpoint her location and stop her abductor before things go grim.
The Guilty basically takes the rough premise of Halle Berry’s The Call and filters it through the execution of the Tom Hardy-fronted Locke. Over the course of this kidnapping drama that centers on an emergency services operator, director Gustav Möller binds us to the protagonist’s side over the course of a night, where he won’t leave the call center and won’t give up on this frightened woman. It’s exciting. We only ever know as much about Iben’s case as Asger does, as all the clues collected during his phone calls. We hoard them and wonder what will happen next. But over this mystery hangs an eerie uncertainty: Asger. The earlier calls establish him as a bit of a prick, and we don’t know right away what exactly went down that caused him to temporarily lose his patrol. But—being American—I assumed something violent.
My suspicions grew as Asger’s attempts at heroism begins to bend rules, then snap them right in half. His supervisors give him warnings or flat out demand he walks away when his shift has ended. Instead, he hides in a dark back office, making more calls, hunting for more clues, crossing lines. You witness his leaps in logic. And maybe you leap along. But looming is the uneasy knowledge that such leaps may have led to calamity before, and could again. Cedergren’s performance is at once steely and mesmerizing. His early exasperation is razor sharp, his ardor for saving the day radiant but also unnerving, his outbursts of rage electric. And through it all, we root for him even as we doubt him, because we’re hoping we can believe in the “protector” who promises he’ll bring Iben home alive.
In short, The Guilty is a mean and lean thriller, aching with tension, dripping with intrigue, and spiked with breathtaking reveals. But the best bit may be its complicated portrait of a bad cop who reconnects with his once-heroic ambitions. Can he be redeemed? That’s the question left to linger.
Header Image Source: Magnolia Pictures