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Movies & TV

25th Jun 2019

The Guilty is the best thriller on Netflix you haven’t seen yet

Kyle Picknell

You’re looking for something to watch on Netflix, aren’t you? Watch this. I demand you watch this. I personally demand it.

It depends on your level of imagination, of course, but films that exist in a confined, solitary location have the capacity to ramp up the nervous tension to levels you simply don’t get in a typical, open-world movie. The downside is that they can often feel forced or gimmicky, or just as easily completely run out of ideas after a strong opening concept. For every Locke there is a Phone Booth, for every Dog Day Afternoon there is a Buried.

The Guilty is a Danish thriller that recalls Steven Knight’s Tom Hardy-driven Locke in the way it explores modern forms of communication through technology. The truth is, though, that despite all the weary human emotion at the heart of Knight’s slow-burn drama, it doesn’t hold a candle to the tour de force unravelling you witness in The Guilty; all told through one man’s reactions to phones ringing dead, phones being answered, the different shades and shapes of voices and the long, dark echoes of silence he is faced with.

The premise is simple. It is also staggeringly effective. The film centres on Asger Holm, a Copenhagen police officer on duty as an emergency services call operator. Through the first few phone calls you learn that he is disgruntled and unhappy, or just tired, maybe, of his life or his job, or both, it’s hard to tell. He is also considerably eccentric compared to the dull, steady colleagues working around him, who continue undisturbed by his often erratic behaviour.

You quickly learn that he doesn’t want to be there, answering emergency services calls and trying to pinpoint the locations of drug addicts overdosing, drunk teenagers fighting outside nightclubs or in one memorable instance, a cyclist who has fallen off and hurt her knee.

The one thing you do know about is his past is offered to you in relation to his future: he is due to appear in court the next day (which is the reason he has been assigned emergency calls desk duty) and hopes to be back serving on the streets of Copenhagen once his trial is resolved. It is then that you are jolted forward as another call comes, this one an abducted woman who is pretending to her captor that she is phoning her child, and that’s it. You are gone. You are swallowed whole, consumed by the dread in the voice, lost in a canyon of demented possibility as suffocating as a rabbit hole.

What The Guilty lacks in physical space, and indeed budget, it makes up for in the almost cruelly efficient dialogue, no-holds-barred writing and a central performance for the ages from Jakob Cedergren. You just feel it in him, every furrowed brow or finger laid on throbbing temple.

He is mesmeric, start to finish, as both a literal and metaphoric call and response takes place with him and this outer stimulus that is slowly crushing in. It’s in everything, from the way he sips water to the subtle keys of intonation in his voice, from the way he removes and replaces his headset, the way he will either bash in a number or a word on the keyboard to the way he will just sit there, consumed in thought. It’s in how quickly he moves, but it’s also in how long he waits.

He exists throughout the film in only two rooms and yet he still manages to hide, to provoke, to cower and to erupt. The film exists in only two rooms and yet it manages to take you into an array of pitiless, seemingly hopeless, violent scenarios that are all the more powerful for nothing actually being shown.

Other than a man’s psyche gradually shattering into a thousand pieces before you.

It’s funny that, towards the end, your responses to the changes in environment gradually start to mimic his own.

Clip via Magnolia Pictures & Magnet Releasing

If you needed any further persuading, Gustav Möller’s feature debut is already being remade into an American film starring Jake Gyllenhaal. Given how Möller managed to make an hour-and-a-half long feature feel like 30 taut minutes of impossible, nerve-erasing television, crisper, more impactful and just plain better than any typically lauded BBC police/crime drama of the last few years, I don’t hold out much hope.

Even if, after Nightcrawler, Prisoners and End of Watch, Gyllenhaal is just about the only prominent Hollywood actor who could pull this role off.

You’ll realise just how uniquely powerful this film is once it sheds its skin midway through, shapeshifting from a gut-wrenching thriller into something else entirely, a dark meditation on guilt, justice, isolation and love; emotional closeness and physical distance; on human contact, on how we are losing it and on how there might still some kind of primal touch there, even if it is just hearing a voice, or a breath.

It’s the best Black Mirror episode Black Mirror has never done. Charlie Brooker will watch it one day and wonder how, after 22 cracks at it, he hasn’t managed to come up with anything half as good as this.

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