Fantastic Fest 2018 Review: The Guilty



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Twenty-five years ago, Robert Rodriguez burst onto the film-making scene with his debut El Mariachi, a neo-Spanish western actioner made for seven grand. He recounted his experience with Rebel Without a Crew, which was part memoir, part DIY directing manifesto. His major idea was to make a movie with what you have access to, be it props, actors, locations, whatever. Doubling down on that idea is making the best of your limitations. Restrictions foster creativity.

Which brings us to Gustav Möller’s The Guilty, a high-concept thriller where the protagonist is an emergency services operator at a dispatch station. His only connection to the world outside is from incoming calls, people asking for help. The drama is restrictive to this singular location and yet it gravitates from its simple narrative – man tethered to phone – to become a powerful tragedy about making bad decisions and living with the repercussions.

Patrol officer Asger Holm (Jakob Cedergren) has been remanded to a desk assignment as he awaits a hearing over an apparent shooting; this much is inferred early on as audible clues about seeing a different psychologist are made. (A cop speaking with the in-house psychologist is SOP in the aftermath of a shooting.) Asger is tired. The minutes tick away slowly, and he seems more apathetic with each new call. Then he gets a call from Iben, a woman in peril. She’s been kidnapped by her ex-husband. Asger does his best to keep Iben calm, composed, as he works to pinpoint her location and radio the information to local authorities. Squandered leads and dashed hopes make Asger that more determined to go aboveboard to reach a satisfactory conclusion. But he’s just working the phones. How much can he possibly do from a dispatch location?

The more calls Asger makes the more complicated the situation becomes. Filtering through addresses and license plate numbers we become embroiled in the search for Iben, feeling a safe return is within reach. At the same time we learn of Asger’s own conduct and why he’s been resigned to desk duty. On the eve of giving sworn testimony of what he did in the line of duty, Asger is figuratively cleansing himself in trying to save this woman. He wants to be a savior even though he is far from saintly.

Several years back, Steven Knight delivered an underrated gem in Locke, an emotional rollercoaster starring Tom Hardy in a car and only that. Over the course of a single night Hardy’s character, Ivan Locke, makes a major life decision on his way home from a construction site that changes his life. Much like The Guilty the dialogue is in the form of phone conversations, only Asger’s pending crisis doesn’t reach critical mass like Ivan’s. If there is a major drawback to Gustav Möller’s minimalist, albeit inventive, drama it is that Asger’s personal character and conduct look to move the story along as opposed to being truly revelatory.

What begins as a thriller transforms to tragedy when startling new facts are revealed. Beyond listening to Iben’s pleas for help Asger also tries to console Mathilde, Iben’s six-year-old daughter as she wimpers for her mommy. The story gets darker from here, and I will refrain from making spoilers as the turns in the narrative are unsettling and horrifying.

Besides the misstep in how Asger’s past actions are incorporated into the story, The Guilty is a captivating thrill ride thanks to Möller’s direction and star Jakob Cedergren. Side profile, POV, reactionary shots, we can’t help but be attentive and in awe of how Asger Holm’s composure is pushed while confined to a desk. The production’s imposed limitations allow for plausible solutions, although the story doesn’t quite give the arc that Asger’s character seeks. Still, Gustav Möller’s debut feature is an emotional whirlwind and worth your attention.

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