Director Gustav Möller might be a hypnotist. The Guilty is gripping tragedy, and is strongest in its focus on sound and storytelling. The film is set in an emergency services call center in Denmark, focusing on a police officer who answers a kidnapping call. Though the premise is simple in that respect, the action is told entirely within the confines of the call center; everything in the story is told through the perspective of someone who is used to having to react quickly to situations of direct impact.
The main character, Asger (Jakob Cedergren), is surrounded by other policemen who are working their regularly scheduled rotation, and he is one of the few who actually enjoys the opportunity for (relative) relaxation. Yet he is restless, as though he’s either waiting to get back into physically nabbing baddies or anxious about something else.
The film is largely told through his eyes, and we watch as his adrenaline kicks in and his eyes grow large with each passing minute. He’s hyper-focused, and very serious. As every call he receives and in turn, makes, grows increasingly desperate he becomes more and more personally involved.
If you’ve ever called for emergency services you might understand how distressing it is to have to go through all of the protocol before any in-person assistance actually arrives. The dispatcher might be sympathetic but must follow the rules, from start to finish, in order to ensure both your safety and that of the first responders. That coordination can prevent major mistakes, but in the moment, you might find yourself making an executive decision rather than wait.
Asger’s desperation turns into choices that undeniably affect the outcome of the crisis on the other line. Asger calls the police dispatcher, who must call the officers on duty to send them to find the car Asger’s caller can barely describe. Though the actors on the other line are never seen, their voices are as vivid as Asger’s eyes, and the sound team deserves extra credit for their work here.
Möller’s film is a masterclass in time management. It takes into account every second, delay, and moments of freezing up in fear. He uses the tension of having no idea of what is happening on the other side of the phone line to its fullest, rendering invisible the visual cues we use to predict the outcome of a situation and therefore obscuring the possible horror behind the next door. It’s never too much to continue watching, and never crosses the thin line between horror and thriller, but it is intense. If you’ve seen and enjoyed Mindhunter or Red Eye you’ll probably be into this, and though there aren’t direct similarities in a visual sense, you’re left with a similar tension by the end.
We must imagine every step of the way, and as we imagine these events we also see Asger, whose professionalism quickly dissolves as he learns more of the kidnapped person’s life. At the same time, we learn of Asger’s life as he tries to calm the people involved — the kidnapped person, that person’s young daughter, and Asger’s partner, who is due to testify in court the next day — if Asger messes this up he won’t be the only person in trouble. Either way, this case will alter the course of his life.
Since you can only see what he can see, your knowledge is reliant on his asking the right questions, making the right guesses, and his judgement. The film is uncompromisingly realistic in this acknowledgement of the audience’s perspective, aurally and visually. In a way, the realism breaks in the final few minutes, though it doesn’t hinder the dark tone. You’ll be haunted the most by what pictures your mind paints, but remember… just like a book, that is a good thing.