A few years back, we saw The Call, a souped-up yet not unenjoyable high-concept thriller in which emergency dispatch operative Halle Berry found herself getting unusually invested in the fate of a kidnapped girl. The Guilty is the Scandie variant: lower lighting, a shade more ambiguity in the characterisation, and occasional pauses for melancholy or regretful thought. The phone jockey here is Asger (Jakob Cedergren), an erstwhile patrolman demoted to Copenhagen's dispatch division after an on-the-job transgression for which he's being raked over the coals by his superiors and in the press. Unlike the thoroughly nice Halle, Asger registers as a bit judgey while taking his first calls during this fateful nightshift, distracted by the prospect of the following day's disciplinary hearing, and only belatedly does he seem to engage with one of the sorry souls asking him for help. This is Iben (voice: Jessica Dinnage), a distraught young mother who calls in to report she's being held against her will in a speeding van; it quickly becomes apparent this is a pedal-to-the-metal domestic, and one unlikely to be calmed or even halted by Asger's frantic efforts, against his colleagues' counsel, to run point by himself from a darkened side-office. Crucially, we never leave his side; each new wrinkle and snafu comes at us down the line.
It is, then, as close as any film in a while has come to being a radio play: a procedural done as a phone-in, one that asks us to listen to a series of voices as our hero calls around in a bid to head the errant vehicle off and bring everybody in without any loss of life. That it hooks us is purely and simply a matter of smart technique: the co-writer/director, Gustav Möller, has thought long and hard about how to tell this story in a way that remains involving and dynamic. He shoots in tight close-ups, varying the angle of approach so as to keep the eye interested, but also in such a way as to seem to box the protagonist in. The camera does to Asger, in other words, what the furious van driver has done to the film's damsel-in-distress, and it's a tribute to Cedergren that his watertight, carefully calibrated performance - no false notes, carrying us somewhere as he hustles from fraught conversation to even fraughter conversation - bears up to such relentless scrutiny. (There's even a kind of journey in where the calls are placed: Asger begins the film as part of a team, then heads into a dark, lonely place before being yanked back into the light. All in a night's work.)
Crucially, it does all this without anything much in the way of excess or flab. A brisk sit at 85 minutes, it plays out with not a trace of the score by which The Call cranked onscreen events up to 11, wanting us to catch every last, nerve-fraying detail of its hero's telecommunications, the sounds of a regular working day going off the rails, and of people (on both ends of the line) approaching the end of their tether at a perilously high velocity. The silence when offscreen characters hang up and don't immediately call back is walloping. (It's surely significant that Iben and hubby are speeding towards Elsinore, to be or not to be.) Some (I think deliberate) patches of dead air mean this isn't quite the thrill ride the Hollywood version was, but it has at least one ace up its sleeve in the most tremendously underhand plot reversal in recent cinema, a development that laughs in the face of natural viewer sympathies and calls us all for the sorry suckers we are. (Listen very closely, and you might be able to hear Möller's compatriot Lars von Trier cackling to himself.) It'd be worth putting yourself through this wringer of a film for that alone; the rest affords us just enough time and visual space for the mind to paint some pretty damn vivid pictures.
The Guilty is available on DVD from Monday through Signature Entertainment.