The Guilty: Thriller Leverages Snug Space to Engage and Enthrall Its Audience

By Kim Hughes

Rating: A-

Anyone who has ever been trapped in a stalled elevator knows that nothing dials up tension like claustrophobia. It’s a device Swedish director Gustav Möller uses vividly in his debut feature The Guilty, a film where virtually all the action happens in one room over the phone.

Actor Jakob Cedergren in a scene from  The Guilty .

Actor Jakob Cedergren in a scene from The Guilty.

Like the film’s central character, who is frantically working that phone, the viewer must draw pictures in her head to makes sense of the conversation and ambient background noises (car sounds, cries) she hears. People being people, we imagine the worst. In the case of The Guilty, the worst we can imagine is exactly what we get.

Though he’s folded behind a desk riding a headset, Asger (Jakob Cedergren) beams swagger and arrogance that doubtless serves him well in his job as a cop. But something is amiss; we learn Asger is suspended and working Copenhagen’s emergency call centre punitively as he awaits a court appearance. We much later learn why.

Soon into his shift, Asger picks up a call from a terrified woman, Iben (Jessica Dinnage, heard but never seen) who has apparently been kidnapped. Asger kicks into gear, trying to ascertain the woman’s location and other details that will permit him to send help. A series of calls to police dispatch and, later, Iben’s family and a fellow cop set to testify on Asger’s behalf pushes the boundaries of the plot outward. But Möller, using tight handheld shots, rarely lets the camera stray from Asger’s face, his sweat and crinkled brow driving the emotional arc.

If you feel you’ve seen something like this before, you might have, via the tense drama Locke from 2013 (recommended). In that film, businessman Ivan Locke (played by Tom Hardy) hurtles down a motorway while speaking non-stop to family and work associates on his mobile, each call giving us another tidbit of plot. We never see Locke outside his car, or any of the people he is speaking with. As with The Guilty, the confined space maximizes the urgency, mooring us right there amid the action and requiring much more investment than conventional popcorn thrillers.

Director Möller says his film was inspired by a real-life 911 call from a woman who, since she was sitting next to her kidnapper, was speaking in codes. “Even though I had just listened to a sound recording, it felt like I had seen the images,” Möller is quoted as saying. “I realized that every single person listening to that phone call would see different images: a different woman, a different kidnapper, and so on.”

This daring narrative approach puts tremendous weight on the actor delivering the dialog, and Cedergren is superb as Asger, persuasively broadcasting first his haughtiness, then his confusion, and finally, his horror as the true nature of the situation with Iben becomes clear. The plot does devolve into something that strains credulity but that’s nitpicking straight from inside my own prim and reality-bent noggin. Others may well be dazzled.

The Guilty. Directed by Gustav Möller. Written by Möller and Emil Nygaard Albertsen. Starring Jakob Cedergren and Jessica Dinnage. Opens October 19 at Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox and is available to rent October 23 on iTunes and On Demand.