January 21, 2018 (Sundance Film Festival), June 14, 2018 (Denmark), release dates
Directed by Gustav Möller
Screenplay by Gustav Möller, Emil Nygaard Albertsen
Music by Carl Coleman, Caspar Hesselager
Edited by Cala Luff
Cinematography by Jasper J. Spanning
Jessica Dinnage as Iben Østergård (voice)
Omar Shargawi as Rashid (voice)
Johan Olsen as Michael Berg (voice)
Katinka Evers-Jahnsen as Mathilde Østergård (voice)
Jacob Lohmann as Bo (voice)
Simon Bennebjerg as Nikolaj Jensen (voice)
Laura Bro as Tanja Brix (voice)
Morten Thumbo as Torben
Distributed by Nordisk Film Distribution, Magnolia Pictures (United States)
Produced by Nordisk Film Spring, New Danish Screen
First is a black screen and silence, and then a list of only the production companies in the opening credits. When the film returns to the black screen, the only sound is a phone ringing, and it rings long enough to make viewers start wondering. The film then cuts abruptly to Asger Holm, who is supposed to be answering one of the phones in an emergency services department in Denmark, and he does pick up eventually. Almost the entire film takes place in real time, over the course of one evening, in the two rooms of the emergency services department call center. The actor playing Asger Holm, Jakob Cedergran, carries the entire film, which consists only of Asger Holm’s phone conversations with people who are desperately seeking help and the few conversations that he has with his coworkers. Viewers learn everything about Asger and about the other characters through Asger’s conversations.
The description so far of The Guilty may not sound like it has much of a plot, but the film draws viewers in steadily and surely. Although his supervisor warns him against it, Asger becomes emotionally involved with one particular caller: Iben Østergård. And that’s when viewers become involved, too; I certainly did. Iben calls emergency services from a van already on the road because she has been taken against her will by her ex-husband, Michael Berg. She is sobbing and talking nonsense, nonsense, that is, until Asger realizes that she is pretending to talk to one of her children so that her husband won’t cut her off.
(This blog post about The Guilty contains some spoilers.)
Once Asger starts breaking the rules, he cannot stop. Viewers learn that this is a habit of his, that it has become a liability. Asger calls Iben Østergård’s home and talks to Iben’s daughter Mathilde. He is already emotionally involved in this case because of his conversation with Iben, but his conversation with Mathilde hits him even harder. Mathilde describes the scene when her father Michael showed up at the house and dragged her mother out by the hair. She is home alone now with her baby brother Oliver, and she desperately wants to see her mother again. Asger makes promises to Mathilde that he knows he almost certainly cannot keep: that nothing will happen to her mother and that she will see her mother again. Asger continues to violate department policy when he gets Michael’s phone number from Mathilde and then calls Michael directly.
Through his conversations with callers seeking help, we learn that Asger is due in court the next day, that he has been assigned to desk duty in the emergency services department until his court case is resolved, that he’s been seeing a department-appointed psychiatrist, that is wife Patricia has moved out. Clearly Asger is a troubled man, but he is still a forceful personality: Callers listen to his advice; his partner Rashid wants him back as his partner and working on the streets again.
Just like all the other characters in the film, we know Asger’s partner Rashid only through his phone conversations with Asger, but we learn a lot about him, too. He is loyal to the extreme. He talks about lying to help Asger and that he is worried about keeping his story straight when he appears in court the next day as a witness in Asger’s hearing. He breaks the law when Asger tells him to enter Michael Berg’s residence to find clues about Michael’s intentions and his plans for his ex-wife:
• Asger: “Rashid?”
• Rashid: “I’m at 12 Strandlodsvej. A brown house. It looks like nobody is home. The lights are out. There’s no car.”
• Asger: “Break in.”
• Rashid: “What?”
• Asger: “Just do as I say.”
• Rashid: “At least tell me why I’m here.”
• Asger: “I will when you’re out of the car. [the sound of a vehicle door opening and closing] Are you listening?”
• Rashid: “Yeah.”
• Asger: “The man who lives there killed his son. Then he kidnapped his ex. They’re heading north. We need his destination.”
• Rashid: “Did emergency services assign you this?”
• Asger “No, I assigned it to myself.”
• Rashid: “Of course you did.”
Rashid knows that following Asger’s instructions could lead to more trouble for both of them, but he enters Michael Berg’s home anyway.
Asger continues to break the rules when he calls Michael Berg and tries to confront him over the phone. By this point in the film, he knows that Michael is a convicted felon. Over the course of the evening, Asger also learns more and more about Iben’s and Michael’s situation. It takes an emotional toll on everyone involved, and the following conversation illustrates in particular Michael’s frustration, despair, and desperation so well:
• Asger: “Where’s Iben?”
• Michael: “I don’t know. I think she hit me.”
• Asger: “I’ll send the police. Do you need an ambulance?”
• Michael: “No police.”
• Asger: “I have to.”
• Michael: “I haven’t f--king done anything!”
• Asger: “I know. I know. Why didn’t you tell me? You should have called the police and let us take care of Iben.”
• Michael: “So you could help her or what?”
• Asger: “Yes. That’s our job.”
• Michael: [laughs] “Nobody is of any help. I tried. Doctors, lawyers, the municipality. None of them will help.”
• Asger: “I’m trying to help.”
• Michael: “F--k you! F--k all of you! . . . [starts crying]
This conversation is especially hard on Asger because he knows that some of the evening’s events are the result of his assumptions and his own words, his own advice, to desperate callers needing the help of the emergency services department.
When Asger begins to realize how his actions and his lies have affected others, the director and the cinematographer, Gustav Möller and Jasper J. Spanning, respectively, use lighting to portray the changes in his mood and demeanor. The red light of the phone indicator light bathes Asger in a garish red glow as he sits and contemplates the consequences, some of them horrific, of his actions.
The Guilty could be a low-budget film noir from the 1940s. It has the single setting: two rooms of phone banks in the emergency services department in Denmark. The other major characters do not appear on-screen (no wardrobe costs!). And the lead, Asger Holm, is a rogue cop who is willing to break the rules. The title, The Guilty, is a perfect—and ambiguous—choice because it could apply, in varying degrees, to several characters, but most specifically to Asger Holm and to one of his callers. I don’t want to say which one because this film has some twists and turns that took me completely by surprise, and I don’t want to ruin the experience for newcomers to the film.
The Guilty is about making assumptions, but it is also about the courage needed to face the truth and about the compassion needed to process the consequences of one’s actions and move forward. Jakob Cedergran reveals his character’s development entirely through his conversations and through facial expressions. It’s a wonderful performance about a man under a lot of pressure, some of it self-imposed.