In his feature-length debut, Danish director Gustav Möller has already mastered the art of minimalist storytelling. Although The Guilty zeros in on a single protagonist simply making a series of phone calls, Möller continues to derive unique ways to make use of his claustrophobic setting, transcending the medium of film (the script would work just as effectively as a play or novel). Relentless, the film is filled with blood-boiling twists and turns, keeping the viewer on their toes without sacrificing any of its unmatched forward momentum.
Our tale revolves around Asger (Jakob Cedergren), an emergency call center operator who was once a respected police officer but has now been demoted to the dispatch unit. Although he is only supposed to direct calls to their proper destination, one particular exchange leads him to take action into his own hands, devoting the rest of his evening to protecting two frightened children and their abducted mother (Jessica Dinnage) from their abusive father (Johan Olsen). As he falls deeper into the rabbit hole, Asger realizes that the situation is far more murky and contorted than he ever could have realized.
“…demoted to the dispatch unit…protecting two frightened children and their abducted mother…”
Much like Tom Hardy in Locke or Ryan Reynolds in Buried, Jakob Cedergren isn’t afforded the luxury of a cast of other performers to share the spotlight with him. He is present in nearly every single frame of The Guilty, cinematographer Jasper Spanning keeping the camera locked onto tight close-ups of his face. Cedergren is forced to showcase his unscrewed portrayal, echoing his character’s gut-wrenching dilemma. Asger is bound by the law, but above all, he is motivated by a sense of moral justice. As we often see, he is thorough to the point of being curt (“It’s your own fault, isn’t it?”). He is more than eager to eschew the bureaucratic chain of command if it means he is able to save lives.
“…derive unique ways to make use of his claustrophobic setting, transcending the medium of film…”
In order to catch his villain, Asger must play detective. The story is constructed out of loose communication fragments, as pieces of the puzzle come eking through the phone line until we fashion together the brutal, unnerving complete picture. It’s difficult enough to maintain a looming sense of dread with a story that told practically in real time, but Gustav Möller is able to do so within a single location. We are trapped in the dispatch chair with Asger, and each dropped call plays like a knife in the chest.
We’ve seen a similar framework go horribly awry (Phone Booth, The Call), yet The Guilty breathes new life into this low-budget, high-concept subgenre. It is a deeply unsettling thrill ride, but one that also explores the moral implications of its thought experiment, with a title that can be applied to nearly all of its characters. The film is an impressive tonal balancing act that gives equal attention to both its rapid, frantic thriller and its intimate, opaque character study. Filmmakers get labeled as disciples of Hitchcock far too often, but with Möller, it’s an apt comparison.
The Guilty (2018) Directed by Gustav Möller. Written By Gustav Möller, Emil Nygaard Albertsen. Starring Jakob Cedergren, Jessica Dinnage, and Johan Olsen. The Guilty screened at the 2018 Chicago Critics Film Festival.
8 out of 10