A few days ago I saw the trailer for Netflix production of The Guilty starring Jake Gyllenhaal. Soon I learned it’s actually a remake (surprise, surprise) of this Nordic version which won the Audience and Grand Jury Award at Sundance. Thankfully this movie is available in HULU, so I decided to give it a watch.
This film is a study in minimalism that less is more. The set is pretty austere, just a small dispatch call center with a few call operators, that’s it. The premise itself is a simple one as well… police officer Asger Holm (Jakob Cedergren) has been assigned to dispatch duty, but things unexpectedly escalates when he answers an emergency call from a kidnapped woman. I love the slo-burn build up that Swedish writer/director Gustav Möller sets up here, working from a script written by himself and Emil Nygaard Albertsen. He’s got the self assurance of a more seasoned filmmaker even though this is his feature directorial debut. He’s only got one other credit directing a short film, which is even more impressive.
The night starts out pretty routine, as Asger answer calls from people who got mugged at the red light district which displays that he’s not the most empathetic dispatcher. It make sense once it’s revealed this isn’t Asger’s regular job and that he’s got a court appointment the next day. What that court appointment is for isn’t revealed until later, but for most of the film, the drama revolves around the conversation between Asger and a woman named Iben (voiced by Jessica Dinnage). At first, everything points to a kidnapping… a woman in a domestic violence situation kidnapped by her abusive husband, leaving their young daughter and a baby boy alone at home. Asger even gets to speak with the daughter, Mathilde (voiced by Katinka Evers-Jahnsen) as it confirms his suspicion further than Iben is in extreme danger under the clutch of a violent man. Well, or so he thought.
Nothing is what it seems in this film, even the title itself had me pondering as I was watching it… who is actually the guilty person? As Asger breaks protocol in trying to help Iben, he asks for help from his partner Rashid (voiced by Omar Shargawi) which drops subtle hints as to what the court appointment is all about. Well, the answer emerges as the film reaches its climax. I gasped as the truth was revealed as to what was actually happening. The deceptively simple script tackles not just one but two concurrent narratives Iben’s and Asger’s, and makes it a pretty gripping ride.
The entire time, all we see is Asger who only has the phone as his only connection to the outside world. The entire thing is contained in a single location, the protagonist only moves from the main call center to a smaller office a few steps away. Cedergren delivers a solid performance that manages to keep my attention here as pretty much the only face on screen. The set-up reminds me of a similar film starring Tom Hardy called Locke, where all we see is him in a car talking to unseen people on the phone for about 90 minutes. Cedergren isn’t quite as charismatic as Hardy but he’s definitely effective in portraying the evolution of his character.
Films like this only works efficiently when you’ve got a sharp, astute script… how refreshing to see a film where the writing is the best special effects. Even without seeing the supposed crime being shown on screen, the dialog between the characters allow our imagination to fill in the details. Kudos to Möller for keeping the suspense level high all throughout the third act, with subtle emotional touches throughout that feels organic without resorting to over-sentimentality.
I’m very curious how the Netflix film will top this one. Apparently the streaming giant spent $30 mil for the rights to this thriller, on top of the actual budget to get Antoine Fuqua as director and the star studded cast. Nordic thrillers are quite popular in Hollywood, hence the countless remakes from Danish productions, but star power and bigger budget don’t always translate to better films. As The Guilty proves, the minimalist approach can make a great impact when a shrewd script and superb performances meet.