Director: Gustav Möller
Screenwriter: Gustav Möller and Emil Nygaard Albertsen.
Jacob Hauberg Lohmann
Runtime: 85 mins.
Australian release date: 28 February 2019
Previewed at: Dendy Newtown, Sydney, on 28 February 2019.
Swedish director Gustav Möller only graduated from the Danish National Film School in 2015 and The Guilty is his debut dramatic feature. Judging by the movie's reception, we'll be seeing a lot more of his work in the future - it won Best Film in Sundance's World Cinema competition and was on the final list of nine nominees for the Best Foreign Language at this year's Oscars, although it was culled when the ultimate five nominees were selected. Still, high praise indeed.
The screenplay, which Möller wrote with Emil Nygaard Albertsen, tells the story of a policeman, Asger (Jakob Cedergren), who has been relegated to an emergency services call centre because he's been taken off active duty and is facing a hearing the following day investigating his actions. Needless to say, then, his heart isn't really in the job until he takes a call from a woman (Jessica Dinnage, never seen) in a car who is obviously constrained from saying what's happened to her and where she is. He quickly realises that she can only answer ‘yes’ and ‘no’, so he tailors his questions accordingly, and it becomes clear that a crime is in process. Unable to leave his shift, and with only the phone at his disposal, Asger has to try to get to the bottom of things and stop matters from spiralling out of control. As time passes, though, he begins to wonder if all is really as it appears.
Möller says, “I got the idea for the film when I stumbled across a real life 911 call [on YouTube] from a kidnapped woman. The woman was traveling by car, and since she was sitting next to her kidnapper she was speaking in codes. At first I was just gripped by the suspense of the call, as any listener would. But then I started reflecting on what made it so intriguing. Even though I had just listened to a sound recording it felt like I had seen images. I had seen the woman, the car she was in, the road the car was on, and even the kidnapper sitting next to her. I realized that every single person listening to that phone call would see different images: a different woman, a different kidnapper, and so on.” To recreate that effect on film, the director has limited the action to just two rooms, one brightly lit, where most of the emergency services staff, computers and telephones are, and one dimly lit, containing a single phone/computer set-up. The cinematographer keeps the camera tight on Cedergren's face, his fingers thrumming on the desk, the computer screen's blinking cursor, and so on. Small details, in other words. Add to this terrific sound effects, so that we clearly hear everything happening in the background, the woman breathing, passing cars, doors slamming, a child crying and the whole effect is like a radio-play of old. Plus, there's no music cuing your emotions for a response. The sound recording and effects teams are crucial to the tension that The Guilty engenders, and it gets very tense indeed.
The screenplay has also contrived a character in Asger who is deeply flawed and not terribly likable, which explains why he goes it alone, failing to involve his co-workers, and the reasons for his long silences. As he thinks about his next move, we're inwardly shouting at the man to move faster and do more. It's a clever device that serves to draw the viewer deeper into the drama and Cedergren is very good in the role. As Asger puts together more and more pieces of the jigsaw, he is forced to reveal more about himself, so our opinion of him changes as the plot progresses. The Guilty is an impressive, skillful, affecting and effective first film. Möller’s next will be highly anticipated.