As technology continues to change the way we communicate, so to do filmmakers who strive to accurately capture these changes. As such, the past decade has increasingly seen text messaging / email become more prominent as communication tools in film going as far as making entire movies set within the digital space of one’s desktop computer. But as one form of communication becomes popularized, logically older methods like the traditional telephone call fall by the wayside. In this sense, Gustav Möller’s Danish thriller The Guilty (Den skyldige) is a throwback confined almost exclusively to a single room with only a phone at its disposal to covey the entire film’s action.
Asger Holm (Jakob Cedergren) is a police officer demoted to emergency dispatch operator as he awaits questioning in a prior case gone wrong. Bored of the mundane nature of his new post, one particular call sparks his interest when a young mother (Jessica Dinnage) is reportedly kidnapped by her ex-husband. Playing out in real time, the whole ordeal from start to finish lasts a brisk 85 minutes, over the course of which Asger becomes increasingly involved in the investigation. Mysteries start to unravel and Asger finds himself confronting the sins of the past he thought he had left behind.
Escalating at a pace that challenges one’s threshold of plausibility, to reveal more would be a disservice to the tense thriller that Möller has built. Credit must be given, however, for the courage the film shows in not only its unique design but also in the way Möller so willingly takes risks in order to subvert audience expectations. Not all of these risks work (especially for veteran viewers of the genre) but in the attempt, The Guilty becomes more than just a one-gimmick movie. Pondering the morality of one’s actions when forced to act quickly and decisively, the film questions the true nature of guilt and innocence, especially in those split-second judgment calls.
Seemingly restricted by its own minimalistic construct, Möller demonstrates a tact ability to maneuver around these limitations. Employing plenty of long takes and close-ups, much of The Guilty’s emotional resonance hinges on the performance of Cedergren. As the lone visual conduit for the audience, Cedergren has the unenviable task of balancing the duality of the character while driving the film’s narrative and emotional cores. For Asger must be unreadable in order to retain what little control he has over the ongoing situation but also so as to not betray his own secrets. Try as he might, however, clever production design reveals cracks in his facade. A slight brow furrow, a minuscule stumble in his calm delivery, clever use of harsh and soft lighting – at one point bathing Asger in a dark crimson light – suggest a deeper internal struggle as the case evolves into a personal quest for redemption.
The cheeky – low budget-high concept methodology behind The Guilty is intriguing because it harkens back to the intimate yet distant nature of a phone call. On one hand, it is more personal than the cold sterility of a text message but on the other hand, the fact that the other person on the line is not seen – only heard creates a distancing air of mystery to the proceedings.
Möller continuously plays with this dynamic throughout utilizing excellent sound design (courtesy of sound editor Oskar Skriver) to emanate the finer details of the outside world. With only auditory information available whispers feel more urgent, each foreign sound more ominous and the tension that much more palpable. Yet with everything happening on one side of the line, the other side exists in the isolating quiet and expansive emptiness of the dispatch center. There sits Asger caged at a distance not only physically but also mentally by his own guilt.
Famously when one gets sent to jail they get one phone call, but who knew you could do so much in just one call?