In the glory days of radio, Sorry, Wrong Number kept listeners on the edge of their seats, simply by inviting them to listen in on an increasingly tense series of telephone calls. That is the basic premise behind this lean Danish thriller. It turns out smart writing and a ferocious nearly-single-handed lead performance make the formula crackle and pop, just like it did in the old school wireless era, in Gustav Möller’s The Guilty, which screens during the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.
It might be a good idea for first responders to have a better idea of each other’s jobs, but Asger Holm is convinced he was assigned to the Danish equivalent of a 9-1-1 call center as a punishment, because it very definitely was. However, if he and his partner Rashid can keep their stories straight at tomorrow’s disciplinary hearing, he should be returning to regular cop duties. Everything changes when Iben calls.
Holm quickly deduces the woman is pretending to talk to her young daughter Mathilde, because she was abducted by her resentful ex-husband Michael. He manages to glean details, such as the color and make of Michael’s white van, but the general location—somewhere along the North Zealand expressway—is not enough for the uniform cops to track them down. However, a call from the terrified Mathilde will motivate Holm to work the phones and internet, even pressing Rashid into unofficial duty, in hopes of anticipating Michael’s next moves.
Although they were different genres, The Guilty bears strong comparison with Locke, Steven Knight’s terrific man-on-car-phone dark-night-of-the-soul. That very definitely means Jacob Cedergren can hang with Tom Hardy and the screenwriting of Möller and Emil Nygaard Albertsen is on par with that of Knight. This is high praise indeed, but it is warranted.
Cedergren is not unknown to discerning American viewers thanks to Terribly Happy and Those Who Kill, but his tour-de-force work in The Guilty should take him to a new level. It is a slow-burning turn that eventually but completely believably explodes, like a crackpot disaster. Actually, the cast on the phone are not as strong as Andrew Scott and Olivia Colman in Locke, but Cedergren carries them along, nonetheless.