While the Lutheran Church may be Denmark's national cathedral, Gustav Möller’s feature debut The Guilty feels like a deeply Catholic motion picture. From the moment we meet emergency services dispatcher Asger Holm (Jakob Cedergren), it's clear that the civil servant’s conscience is weighed down by the titular spiritual anchor, as his colleagues cautiously eye him, and the former officer condescends to the rest of this deskbound call crew with an air of experienced superiority. Unafraid to present the audience with an unlikable protagonist (who's also obviously been busted back for some sort of infraction), Möller’s movie then quickly tasks Asger with a quest he’ll stop at nothing to conquer, as if his potential damnation depends upon its successful completion.
Asger's purgatory – at least until his hearing – is a grey set of cubicles, each adorned with a red light. Whenever a call comes in, the bulb ignites, as a dispatcher tries to calm the civilian on the line. Most of these "emergencies" are rather laughable: unruly doormen getting physical with drunken club patrons, or intoxicated doofuses who just crashed their bikes (and not, say, their cars). Asger answers them all with muted disdain, his fellow desk jockeys side-eyeing him as he drones on, hoping beyond hope that his partner Rashid (Omar Shargawi) sticks to his story at the offical proceeding so that the two can hit the streets together again.
Then comes the call of his life: Iben (Jessica Dinnage), a panicked passenger who sounds like she's being held against her will in a moving vehicle. Being an ace interrogator, Asger is able to extract the make and model of the van she's imprisoned in, and dials dispatch to get a squad car out to try and pull her kidnapper over. In the meantime, the cop can't quit being a cop, and deduces that Iben's captor is probably her estranged husband Michael (Johan Olsen), who's got an assault charge on his rap sheet and isn't legally allowed to see their two kids. But after a ring to their eldest child Mathilde (Katinka Evers-Jahnsen), it becomes clear that something is truly rotten, and it's only a matter of time before the situation gets much, much worse for the scared girl's mother.
Like Steven Knight's Locke (or Brad Anderson's American 911 precursor, The Call), almost the entirety of The Guilty revolves around one individual, on the phone, trying to work through a problem - a scenario that doesn’t really lend itself to captivating cinema. Yet Möller’s direction allows us to truly feel Asger's desperation, via tight close ups that linger just a second or two too long, as Cedergren visibly grinds the cop's gears and sells the character’s driving panic. Jasper Spanning's cinematography is comprised of a chilly combination of blues, grays and blacks, the office painted as little more than a waystation where employees watch the clock, impatiently waiting for their shifts to be up. Möller discovers the cinematic in the static, extracts pathos from simplistic formal decisions, and observes with Frankenheimer-esque precision as Cedergren's nuanced turn performs the rest of the heavy lifting.
Seasoned viewers will probably see a dramatic third-act twist coming from a mile away, but it's arguable that the "plot" isn't nearly as captivating as the story of a disgraced police officer building toward a confession of his own. This is what marks The Guilty as being rooted in spirituality that, while still undeniably Christian, veers away from Denmark's nationwide practice. As much as Möller’s expertly crafted thriller is about a man potentially rescuing a woman from her evil subjugator, it's just as much (if not more) about Asger unburdening himself of sins he's committed in the line of duty. The first-time director is wise enough to let us sit on God's throne for 85 lightning fast minutes, deciding whether or not his actions are noble enough to atone for his own transgressions, allowing the officer to exit this holding pattern, where the weight has become just too much to bear any longer.