If the setting of “The Guilty” couldn’t be simpler, its immaculate execution by first-time director Gustav Möller couldn’t be more gripping and involving.
A disturbing Danish psychological thriller and a real-time police drama that’s equal parts provocative and emotional, “The Guilty” wrings complex drama out of its minimalist physical trappings.
Like 2014’s Tom Hardy vehicle “Locke,” “The Guilty” is a single-location film that consists almost entirely of a series of telephone conversations that get increasingly complex and unexpected.
A precise, sure-handed filmmaker, Möller not only believes that “the strongest images in film, the ones that stay with you the longest, they are the ones you don’t see,” he has the skill to convince us as well.
Working with co-writer Emil Nygaard Albertsen, Möller has set his film in the police emergency services control room of a large city — unnamed, though presumably Copenhagen.
The first sounds we hear, not surprisingly, are ringing phones. The first image we see in Jasper Spanning’s taut cinematography is the close-up of an ear with a telephone earpiece firmly in place.
On dispatcher duty this evening is officer Asger Holm, played with an impact that gradually overpowers you by top Danish actor Jakob Cedergren.
Asger, it’s clear almost immediately, is not business as usual as a dispatcher. When people call in for help, he is as likely as not to give them a sarcastic hard time for getting drunk or being in the red-light district in the first place as he is to send help.
Cedergren has given Asger a stern, rigid visage, presenting him physically as well as verbally as an uncompromising moralist with a sense of mission, someone who has no doubt he knows right from wrong.
That doesn’t mean, however, that he can’t be disturbed or unsettled, as he is by a call on his personal mobile from a journalist who asks him if he has any comments on his court date the following day.
What becomes clear is what we could have guessed: dispatcher is not Asger’s regular beat. He has been temporarily assigned there pending the outcome of that legal proceeding, the cause of which we gradually learn more about.
All this is merely the setup for the main event. The phone rings again and on the line is no disoriented drunk but someone whose situation will change the nature of Asger’s night, maybe even of his life.
The caller is Iben (Jessica Dinnage), a woman who sounds like she is talking to her young daughter.
Asgar quickly catches on that Iben is talking to him in a kind of code, trying to convey that she is in trouble without coming out and saying it, and he helps her along by asking a series of yes or no questions about her situation.
What he discovers is that Iben is in a car being driven by her ex-husband and being taken somewhere very much against her will.
Alive to all the grim possibilities a kidnapping presents, the moralist in Asger tries to piece together what is going on, bending heaven and earth to do the right thing for this endangered woman.
It can’t be over-emphasized how carefully screenwriters Möller and Albertsen have constructed this story, doling out information sparingly, on a need-to-know basis, letting their plot purposefully unroll like a ball of twine.
As that is happening, “The Guilty” is ratcheting up both the level of tension and our worry for the people involved as the nature of the unexpected kinds of jeopardy they are involved in gradually becomes clearer.
Helping in this is the superior nature of the performances, starting with star Cedergren, who brings startling nuance and expression to the tight close-ups that dominate the film.
But “The Guilty” wouldn’t succeed as well as it did without the complex editing of Carla Luffe and the involved voices of those who engage Asger on the phone, starting with costar Dinnage but including Johan Olsen and Omar Shargawi in key supporting roles.
One of “The Guilty’s” more potent elements is its emphasis on Asger’s genuine passion for police work. “We’re protection, we protect people who need help,” he says on the phone at one point, and his sincerity is never in doubt.
How that belief, that sense of purpose, interacts with the real world in this twisty story — and whether things will work out the way those on the screen or in the audience expect — is the heart of this very fine film. It’s a heart that beats as strongly as anyone could hope for.
Rated: R for language
Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes
Playing: Laemmle’s Royal, West Los Angeles; Playhouse, Pasadena