In TV, it’s called a “bottle episode”: a half-hour or hour of an ongoing series that corrals a cast into a single, usually closed-off location and forces the show’s creatives/creators to work within those parameters. The Guilty, Swedish filmmaker Gustav Möller’s feature debut, sticks to a somewhat similar limited set-up. A man (Jakob Cedergren) sits in a room, behind a desk, answering a phone. His name is Asger. He didn’t always do this; once upon a time, he was a cop who worked a beat, who was out in the field and got his hands dirty. Then something happened. Soon, very soon, he can clear his name and go back to work. Until then, Asger is killing time in a sparsely populated emergency-services-dispatch post, taking 911 calls. Just a guy with an earpiece-and-mic get-up, dealing with speed freaks and manic mugging victims.
Then, right before his shift is over, his line rings again. The cracking voice on the other end says, “Hi, sweetie.” Asger thinks the woman is drunk; he soon realizes she’s talking in code. They establish a yes-or-no system: Does the person with you know you’re calling the police? No. (The driver thinks she’s talking to her child.) Does she know the person she’s with? Yes. Has she been abducted? Yes. He gets this crying passenger to identify the make of the vehicle she’s in — a white van — and is able to roughly triangulate where the call is coming from via nearby cellphone towers before she abruptly hangs up. Asger manages to get a patrol car in the area to start searching. Then, waiting for a response, he begins to do a little detective work.
One man, one emergency line, two locations (he eventually switches from his cubicle to a slightly more private room five feet away), a variety of voices piped in via his headset … and that’s it. We never leave the office. We never leave Asger’s side. Any information we end up getting — and we end up getting a lot — we receive the same piecemeal way our man does. Because we’re talking about a movie and not an installment in a serialized drama, you can’t categorize this a bottle episode. It will have to settle for simply being labeled as one of the more ingenious imported thrillers to hit theaters in a long while.
The question is not whether this is a gimmick (of course it is!), but how effectively Möller and company utilize this high-concept premise in the name of keeping audiences tense and uneasy. The answer is: enough to make you feel like you’re sitting in that cramped dispatch headquarters with this man, flop-sweating alongside the flawed-hero ringmaster while he desperately orchestrates a search-and-rescue mission. Necessity is the mother of invention, so the director and his cowriter Emil Nygaard Albertson find ways of filling in the puzzle of what’s really going on with some choice bits of misdirection and a few sucker-punch revelations, doled out on a need-to-know basis. (The twist — there is one — is handled expertly; Alger’s expositionary backstory, less so. The title contains multitudes.) Cinematographer Jasper Spanning favors shots that range from tight close-ups to claustrophobic ones, as well as compositions that seem to be penning in the protagonist via windows, bars, rectangular frames within frames.
And though he carries the bulk of the film on his shoulders, Cedergren knows that his face is responsible for the heavy dramatic lifting, fine-tuning his expressions enough to let you follow him down each turn of the cop’s white-knight rabbit hole. The look he gives when he realizes he may have drastically misread the situation feels like a bomb has dropped. As for his audio-only costars, kudos to the voice actors — especially Jessica Dinnage, who lends a sense of panic and pathos to the woman in the white van. The Guilty is many things, not all of which work 100-percent of the time. But it does succeed as one hell of a radio play with benefits, letting a literal call-and-response crime procedural play out in real time. It’s a clever enough variation on a genre, done with a genuine sense of verve — the sort of rough gem you don’t want to keep on hold.