When director Gustav Möller met the press at the Sundance film festival in January 2018, he recalled where the inspiration for his sensational feature debut came from. He was listening to an actual 911 call on YouTube and was intrigued by how one’s attention could be captured by the drama of that one, simple phone call. Listening to it conjured images in his mind that he also realized would be different for anyone else.
Audiences might think this is another version of the Halle Berry thriller The Call (2013), but that film didn’t have the guts to do what The Guilty does.
Police officer Asger Holm (Jakob Cedergren) has been removed from the streets after an incident. While waiting for an upcoming court date, he’s serving as an emergency police dispatcher, answering calls from citizens in crisis. He’s bored, but that changes when he gets a call from Iben (Jessica Dinnage), a young woman who’s pretending that she’s calling her daughter. Asger soon realizes that Iben has been kidnapped by a man and that she’s sitting in his car. Iben can’t be straightforward with Asger since her kidnapper is sitting right next to her, but the officer finds a way of making her tell him that the vehicle is a white van. After instructing other cops to keep an eye open for a white van on the highway where the call came from, Asger reaches Iben’s young daughter on the phone…
Plenty of Swedish blood
This thriller is Danish, but there’s plenty of Swedish blood in it as well. Möller is a Swede who got his film education in Denmark and Cedergren was born in Sweden but has spent most of his life in Denmark and is better known as an actor in that country. It’s quite remarkable to see this project succeed as well as it does; done on a shoestring budget, the whole movie takes place only in that dispatch center. The thrills are based solely on the information that Asger receives on the phone – and it is more than enough to have us at the edge of our seats.
How did they accomplish that? First of all, Möller and Emil Nygaard Albertsen wrote a script containing an ingenious story that offers a few laughs, heartbreak and a clever twist near the end; the dialogue remains credible throughout, especially the way Asger certainly doesn’t have all the right answers as he’s talking to Iben, her daughter, the kidnapper, etc. In fact, Asger is a man with a lot of issues. The way Cedergren plays him, we understand and sympathize with him to some degree, but we also sense everything that’s wrong (temper, selfishness, a tendency to overreact) – all issues that could derail his quest to save Iben. At the same time, we can see how the system will fail Iben and we root for Asger as he begins to break a few rules. So, secondly, the choice of the lead actor is very important.
Thirdly, there’s the technical aspects. Möller and his team find ways of varying the location by having Asger switch rooms (finding natural reasons to do so) and editor Carla Luffe expertly builds tension. She knows when to focus intensely on Cedergren’s face, breaking into a sweat, and when to allow him and us room to breathe a little.
Sound plays a huge part since everything is based on phone calls; everybody else in the cast have to deliver performances as if they’re dubbing an animated film and the sounds of highways, cars, doors opening, etc. really is what makes us imagine what’s happening on the other end of the line. And that’s a lot of drama and horror. The fact that this film, which contains no blood or violence, feels like something children should never see is quite an accomplishment.
The Guilty 2018-Denmark. 85 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Lina Flint. Directed by Gustav Möller. Screenplay: Gustav Möller, Emil Nygaard Albertsen. Cinematography: Jasper Spanning. Editing: Carla Luffe. Cast: Jakob Cedergren (Asger Holm). Voices of Jessica Dinnage (Iben), Omar Shargawi (Rashid), Johan Olsen (Michael).
Trivia: Original title: Den skyldige.
Last word: “There are definitely things I want to say with ‘The Guilty’. There’s some pretty dark and complex subject matter in it that I want to discuss with the audience. The vehicle for that, and my driving force with it, was also making something that would be entertaining and be thrilling. That is how I like to be presented to a film; I like to lean into a film when I watch it. I don’t want to sit and be analytical … I want the filmmaker to draw me into it. What summarizes that the best is the American 70s.” (Möller, Screen Anarchy)