AUSTIN, Texas—Browsing through written descriptions (whether in this years Fantastic Fest brochure or this weekends movie listings), The Guilty might sound remarkably unremarkable: a cop on desk duty takes a panicked 9-1-1 call and has to figure out whats happening. It sounds like a classic high-stakes, detective-against-time story, but what makes its intriguing is that the entire film never leaves the detectives office—the cinematic equivalent of a bottle episode.
Danish writer/director Gustav Möller has created something special with those constraints, and anyone lucky enough to find The Guilty playing nearby during its limited US theatrical release should take advantage of it. The film feels like a masterclass in minimalism in all aspects, from the way it doles out information to the performance of its lead to the so-good-you-cant-help-but-notice-it sound design. The Guilty is a film you cant look away from despite the visuals being its least interesting part.
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At Fantastic Fest, Möller told Ars he got an idea for The Guilty in the same place we all would: random YouTube videos. “I stumbled across this YouTube clip, which was a sound recording of a real 9-1-1 call coming from a kidnapped woman, calling an operator while sitting next to her abductor,” he recalled. “She had to speak in codes not to get caught basically.”
True to its genre, The Guiltys veteran policeman Asger (played by
Jakob Cedergren) has earned himself call-center duty for some kind of indiscretion the office seems to still be sorting out. A journalist dials in trying to get anyone to comment. Someone getting mugged in the red-light district wants Asgers help. Another caller appears to be on drugs and thinks hes trapped in whatever room hes in. Asger trudges through this proper remedial work, though The Guilty looks artistic. The film feels claustrophobic even if you dont know its visual constraint: tight zooms on Asgers face furrowing dejectedly from idiotic calls, while every atom of the water cooler coming across like an explosion as he fills a cup between conversations.
The plot catches up to this aesthetic sense of dread soon enough with one call in particular. Asger can only hear heavy breathing on the other end of the line, but he knows from the 9-1-1 system the call came from a woman named Iben. When she finally speaks, the situation remains murky: “Hi, sweetie.”
It takes Asger a minute to deduce what may be happening, but eventually he lands on it: “Does the person whos with you know you called?” Through more yes-or-no questions, he puts together that Iben seems to be in a vehicle unwillingly and has faked a call to her young kid as a way to look for help. The woman stays unbelievably cool at first, but she makes a slight mistake as Asger tries to get some information about the vehicle type. Is it a red? White? Black? A car? A van? “Van,” she blurts out. Suddenly, the call ends.
Plenty more happens in The Guilty, all from this sterile looking call center: Asger tries coordinating police chases to snag suspect vehicles. He calls in buddies not on call center duty to attempt some on-the-ground research. He speaks with young kids and the potential perp hoping to piece together this horrible evening in progress.
Once this main plot driver involving Iben shows up, the films pacing perfectly sits on the line between gradual and frenetic. Asger regularly has to field other calls or questions from coworkers in between hearing directly from someone in the Iben situation, but everytime the phone rings audience pulses quicken. And each time a call deals with the main situation, The Guilty doles out just enough new information to keep viewers invested and guessing. It all speaks to the transformative, quizzical experience Möller had immersing himself in 9-1-1 audio-only videos.
“I was caught by the suspense of the situation, but the big thing for me was this feeling of seeing this woman and seeing the car she was in even though I was only listening to the sound. I realized everyone… you and I listening wouldve seen a different woman,” he says. “That was a super exciting premise to make a film—a suspenseful thriller done in a unique way. Its a film that will play out in a different way for everyone, since half of the film is playing out in your head hopefully.”
In this way, The Guilty plays like the ideal cinematic way to capitalize on societys increased interest in true crime podcasts. Like Serial, In The Dark, or your other non-fiction audio thriller of choice, information reveals itself incrementally to constantly change the scope of the central case and your understanding of it. Characters become three-dimensional through tone of voice or particular standout quotes instead of explicit actions or looks. Half the fun comes from putting yourself in the seat of Sarah Koenig or Asger trying to finish a puzzle without all the pieces just yet; the other half lies in “seeing” the people, places, and things you hear and experiencing them indirectly via imagination. While not a direct inspiration, Möller readily admits he admired Serial and wanted to reference its pacing in the script.
“I remember the feeling with every episode you listen to, you got new info about these people and this crime,” he says. “And all this new info, your images of these people and these places would change. We present the audience with one image, one set of information, and then 20 minutes later give new info to either change things a little bit or turn everything on its head.”
Speaking of imagination, visualizing the cheap, box-office-driven action version of The Guilty seems easy. Every siren heard would instead be a slick, stunt-filled car chase. Creeky doors in an abandoned house would have jump scares or violence lurking. But Möller thinks such commonplace show-and-tell would ultimately ruin the aesthetic that makes The Guilty thrill. This film may tell just one contained story and do so through a single location and perspective, but it never feels gimmicky or unworthy of the big screen. Similar to something like Searching, this niche genre (phone films) experiment instead pushes forward from what previously happened within this creative space.
For the entirety of its brisk near-90 minutes, The Guilty immerses its viewers through small and precise touches: actor Jakob Cedergrens ability to emote with every inch of his being as Asger, the lovingly crafted sound scape surrounding viewers in theaters, and Möllers confident storytelling that knows less can ultimately be more.
“If you cut away from whats going on, to me it would make the film feel smaller. What makes this film feel big is the fact we dont see whats going on, that makes [this situation] something within you,” he says. “And it may be cliche, but what you dont see is always more vivid in film—Jaws for example. That shark is so terrifying until the moment you see the shark. This is like us not trying to show the shark for the whole film.”
This weekend, The Guilty opens theatrically in select US cities.
Listing image by Magnolia Pictures