Masterfully constructed, gripping, and so tense you’ll almost forget to breathe
In an industry too often dominated by big-budget blockbuster films led by equally massive stars, seldom do films like The Guilty emerge through the cracks, however, Gustav Möller’s directorial debut does just that.
The Danish thriller premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, where it was the recipient of the World Cinema Dramatic Audience Award, and at the 2018 Sarejavo Film Festival it garnered critical acclaim. Unlike the recent emergence of suspense-driven thrillers such as American films “A Quiet Place,” “Hereditary,” and “Get Out,” The Guilty feels almost like an entirely different kind of film, and diverges from the genre in it’s unique and stripped bare approach to suspense.
The film follows Asger Holm, played by a scintillating Jakob Cedergren, who has been assigned desk duty at the Emergency East dispatch call centre. Asger’s affronting manner and attitude seems off, and not what you would expect from an emergency services responder, alluding to the fact he’d much rather be on patrol rather than directing 112 emergency calls. Though the calls Asger answers seem mundane and ordinary, sound editor Oskar Skriver’s score keeps you on edge from the very beginning, masterfully building tension before it’s even occurred. Each sound, or lack thereof, is purposeful and the film would be completely different without its score. Unlike the tense but monotonous set-up, when a call from an abducted woman named Iben comes through, Asger must race against the clock and go beyond his duty to save her life. However, not all is as it seems, Asger’s transgression which landed him desk duty tantalisingly bubbles just below the surface and is masterfully woven into the main storyline, with only minor allusions throughout culminating in a dramatic and pulsating finale at the very end.
Much like Steven Knight’s “Locke” starring Tom Hardy, the entire film is shot solely in two neighbouring rooms. It is entirely focused on Cedergren, through whom we see the entire spectrum of emotions illustrated on his face like a canvas. Utilising three different cameras, takes in The Guilty range from 5 to at times 30 minutes long. These long takes, coupled with a very real palpable tension make it feel impossible to look away, which becomes even more of an achievement given that the only thing you see is Cedergren’s face as he desperately tries to get to the bottom of the case as he battles his demons. Möller very deliberately focalises this, and it’s easy to see why; the world that The Guilty operates in seems so vague and up to interpretation that the audience sees what they want. We never see the settings described from callers on the other side of the phone, instead we see the desperate reactions of a man rendered helpless. In fact, all the phones in The Guilty are real, and Cedergren made each call in real time to voice actors hidden in a room nearby, giving the film a sense of realism you can’t script.
Though The Guilty was only made with a budget of approximately 500,000 Euros, Möller welcomed the challenge as “a gift, because it makes you work harder and think outside of the box in how to create suspense.” The Guilty is filmed precisely and deliberately, and Skriver’s sound design works critically in conjunction with these aforementioned long takes to set an exhilarating and claustrophobic scene, with punctuated moments of silence and stillness to heighten the tension. The screenplay is clever and thrillingly taut, avoiding long and boring exposition and instead opting to leave enough for the audience to work with and form their own suspicions and conclusions.
The Guilty marks the start of Möller’s directorial career, and in an October 2018 interview he stated that he wanted to make “a playful, passion-driven project, about something we haven’t seen before.” This passion coupled with the astute attention to detail may be down to the fact that Möller’s cinematographer, editor, co-writer, and producer all went to film school together, with this project being shot right after graduation. Möller himself spent just under a year researching and visiting many Norwegian emergency dispatch centres to replicate their authenticity, and it pays off.
The Guilty has been nominated as Norway’s entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the 91st Academy Awards, and the rights to the film have been bought by Bold Films for an American remake starring Jake Gyllenhaal. But The Guilty’s allure comes largely from it’s small scale charm and it’s deliberately low budget. If you love movies that get your heart racing, The Guilty is not one to miss.
You can see The Guilty at Cinema Nova, from Thursday 28th February.
By James Desmond, Treasurer of the Monash Film Society