26 October – 1 November, DCA
If you have not heard of Swedish filmmaker Gustav Möller, it is understandable. A cinematic newcomer, he has just two films to his name. The first was a short, I Mørke (In Darkness), completed in 2015 while he was a student at the Danish Film School, but earned him the ‘Next Nordic Generation Award’ alluding to his potential. The Guilty, made just a year after graduating, may be his first full-length feature, but what a debut it is.
Co-written by Möller and Emil Nygaard Albertsen, the film opens confidently with an ominous blank screen and the insistent ringing of a phone, which prepares the audience to be hurled into a fast-paced, action-packed thriller. But this is one with a major difference; the film is set in the claustrophobic confines of two small rooms – the emergency services call centre.
Asger Holm (brilliantly portrayed by Jakob Cedergren) is the flawed hero whose own story forms one strand of the mystery to be solved. Demoted to a desk job for reasons unknown, the police officer is awaiting the outcome of a court hearing and is tiring of, and unsympathetic to, the self-inflicted problems of most callers to the emergency services. However, the terrifying events of a kidnapping which unfold through his headset form the main thread of the thriller. Asger, frustrated by the limitations of his situation, must take whatever action he can to somehow resolve the situation without ever leaving the room.
The premise for the film came from listening to a real-life emergency call from a kidnap victim, after which Möller felt he had seen images of the crime. He has said elsewhere that he wanted to make a film which would be a different experience for each cinemagoer, by allowing the audience’s imagination to create the visual narrative.
Möller was also influenced by the podcast Serial by Sarah Koenig and Julie Snyder which saw him reassessing his sympathy for the characters as the story unfolded. He wanted The Guilty to have the same effect, using real-time narrative to drip-feed the story. This effect is created by employing exceptionally long takes (some of over 30 minutes) using three cameras in much the same way as its cinematographic inspiration, Dog Day Afternoon, was filmed by Sidney Lumet. The result is a tense, edge-of-seat thriller filmed over only 13 days in which the audience sees the character tire and lose focus.
The Guilty is a masterclass in using sound to tell a vivid story. Punctuated by brutal silences, the audio draws the audience into listening more intently to police car chases, horrifying screams and the tears of a small child relayed through a headset. This heavy reliance on sound means the audience works harder and the result is more satisfying. Oskar Skriver is to be congratulated for a soundtrack that is merciless and gripping.
Though action is minimal, the lighting dramatically adds to the alienation effect with shadows and monochromatics working to increase the tension and to further highlight the isolation of the character. His silhouette is often framed between the red light of the phone and the blue of the headset suggesting he is a man for whom boundaries are a blurred line.
This film is claustrophobic and unsettling but fascinating nonetheless. This pared down, immersive thriller has left audiences riveted around the world and has already won awards and huge plaudits at Zurich, Seattle, Rotterdam, Sundance and Stony Brook film festivals, but Gustav Möller has ruled out a remake in English. “Making a film has to be like answering a question” he says, “when the film is done, the question is dead, and the challenge is over.”