By Chris Nashawaty
October 16, 2018 at 06:38 PM EDT
Nikolaj Moller/Magnolia Pictures

Set entirely in an emergency call center, Danish director Gustav Moller’s subtitled import, The Guilty, is as unrelentingly tense as any big-budget Hollywood thriller this year. It turns its cramped, claustrophobic confines not only into a virtue, but its biggest white-knuckle strength.

Jakob Cedergren stars as Asger Holm, a Copenhagen police officer who has been temporarily demoted to desk duty, manning phones and fielding the often-petty complaints of drunken partiers whose problems aren’t as life-threatening as they seem to think they are. He has little compassion and even less patience. We don’t learn why he’s been taken off regular duty right away, but like so many of this artfully gripping film’s best twists and narrative switchbacks, waiting is part of the game. In fact, you could say it is the game.

Near the end of his night shift, Asger receives a call from a woman in distress. The voice on the other end of the line is terrified and sobbing, her words clutching in her throat. Her name is Iben. And Asger quickly deduces that she’s been abducted by her ex-husband who has her hostage in the passenger seat of his van heading north of the city. He thinks that she is calling their young daughter to reassure her that mommy will be home soon and not to worry. Asger is supposed to just route her emergency through the proper channels and move on to the next call. But the cop in him can’t let the trembling, terrified voice on his headset go. He tries to keep her on the line as long as he can while working a second line to help the police stop the crime before it turns into something worse.

Despite his warm blue eyes and brow of beading sweat, Cedergren’s Asger is a bit of a rogue – which may have something to do with his temporary demotion in the first place. And the reason he seems unable to let go of Iben’s case may be an act of atonement for a transgression we don’t even know the particulars of yet. He’s trying to do the right thing and we suspect it’s the first time he has in a long time. And Cedergren, an actor who was unfamiliar to me prior to the film, makes you feel his character’s helplessness and desperation much the way that Jimmy Stewart did in Rear Window or Tom Hardy did in Locke– two race-against-the-clock thrillers about frantically remote saviors. The camera never leaves Cedergren’s face. And better yet, you never want it to.

Moller and co-writer Emil Nygaard Albertsen are playing coy with the audience’s nerves here, and the film (which was chosen as Denmark’s official entry for the Best Foreign Film Oscar) is a bit of a stunt. But it’s a hugely effective one, challenging our preconceived assumptions and prejudices. The Guilty is an absolute workout that pulls the rug out from under you just when you think you have it figured out. The last ten minutes will keep you rattled long after you’ve left the theater. A-

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