When executed well films set in just one room can be incredible, but of course if done poorly they qualify as unbearable. Movies like Oliver Stone’s Talk Radio, Roman Polanski’s Death and the Maiden and Craig Monohan’s The Interview are glowing examples of how intense and engaging such films can be, and while there are numerous examples of the genre, it is much harder to find those that take place entirely via phone call. Brad Anderson’s The Call and Joel Schumacher’s Phone Booth come to mind and are fair points of comparison to help entice people to The Guilty, a Danish dramatic thriller from director Gustav Mӧller.
Set entirely in an emergency call-center office, The Guilty spends 100% of its time focused on Asger Holm (Jakob Cedergren, Arn: The Knight Templar), a weary police officer who has been positioned in the call room while an investigation into his conduct takes place. On the night before his court hearing, nearing the end of a long shift, he takes a call from a woman in distress. She has been abducted and is in the passenger seat of a vehicle with her captor at the wheel. Being only able to answer yes or no to his questions, Asger deducts that the woman has two young children left home alone and he races against time to save the woman from her kidnapper while trying to get information from her 6-year-old daughter on the other line.
What ensues is a masterclass in suspense, which relies heavily on its great lead performance and uses every frame to maximum effect. As Asger switches between multiple phone lines to coordinate a rescue with police – while engaging with the victim – his own emotional state is tested as the burdens of his own troubles bear down on him. The intensity of the situation is palpable and when long moments of silence occupy the screen, we are forced to observe his performance in great detail. Mӧller’s camera focuses tightly on his seemingly expressionless face as beads of sweat begin to form, and what at first appears to be a vacant glaze, soon becomes a fixed and terrified look of contemplation. Such moments, of which there are many, are hypnotising and full credit must be given to Cedergren for conveying so much emotion using so little expression. It is a tour-de-force performance to say the least.
Equally as important are the performances from Jessica Dinnage (The Rain) as the kidnapped woman and Katinka Evers-Jahnsen as her 6-year-old daughter. These are two remarkable off-screen performances, perfectly adding sheer horror to the unfolding events. Dinnage’s delivery is raw and distressing while Evers-Jahnsen’s is absolutely chilling, and with each phone call positioned perfectly between the plot’s various pivots, the result is a taut and frenetic exercise in minimalism.
Mӧller’s direction is calculated and strong, with an expert knowledge of pacing and critical timing. In a script he co-wrote with Emil Nygaard Albertsen (The Elite), he has fashioned a thriller with the precision of Hitchcock, and successfully conjured an abduction so vivid that little imagination is required of the viewer. His camera is focused squarely on Asgar, and yet you walk away feeling as though you’ve experienced something entirely visceral and graphic. With no other feature films to Mӧller’s name, The Guilty marks the beginning of what will hopefully be a long and impactful career for him.
There is reportedly a Hollywood remake in the works with Jake Gyllenhaal rumoured to star. It is certainly a film that American producers would be eager to make, with its minimal budget, simple production design and a credible lead actor being all too appealing. And I have no doubt that it will work. The story is, after all, universal… and yet, as with so many foreign films adapted for the English market, the originals should never be overlooked. The Vanishing, The Upside and The Departed were all excellent but never forget their original foreign-language predecessors. The Guilty ranks among them and deserves your attention now – not later – and Jakob Cedergren deserves to be further discovered by a wider audience… Gyllenhaal can wait.