“I’m afraid of being alone” a six-year-old Mathilde (voiced by Katinka Evers-Jahnsen) desperately whispers over the phone to emergency dispatcher, Asger (Jakob Cedergren), early on in Gustav Möller’s austere single-location Danish film, The Guilty. It’s an oddly serious line for a child so young to be intoning to someone – especially a random phone operator she’s just met – but there’s a childlike sincerity in her voice that makes its utterance so harrowing. “You know what I do when I feel lonely? I turn on the TV. Then I have company. Why don’t you do that?” Asger tells Mathilde. “It’s broken,” she replies, matter-of-factly.
The Guilty is built on this form of empathy: of hearing voices on the other side of the line, untangling their motivations, building up character profiles from simple inflections, pauses – and believing them. But it’s also about the way that these voices can deceive, and hide behind the faceless veil that this technology offers. This duplicity culminates in one fateful night where protagonist Asger, a police officer relegated to the dispatchers’ office while awaiting trial for a questionable crime he committed, takes a handful of casual, minor calls towards the end of his shift. One is a surprise from a journalist who pointedly questions Asger about his day in court the next day; another, from a man robbed at knifepoint; and a third, in which Asger chats to his boss, Bo (Jacob Hauberg Lohmann), who casually attests that Asger’s upcoming trial will be at most a slap on the wrist, and he’ll return to the field soon.
Asger’s reactions vary: he meets the journalist’s immodesty with contempt, the robbery victim’s misfortune with glee, and his boss’ suggestion with a calm but anxious uncertainty about his future and the righteousness of his actions.
But it isn’t until the next call that Asger receives that these pieces of Möller’s telecommunications thriller fall into motion. “Hi, sweetie,” a woman’s voice plainly speaks. Initially, it sounds like a prank call – and Asger reiterates that the line is emergency services before asking if the caller, identified by the computer as Iben (voiced by Jessica Dinnage), is drunk. After threatening to hang up, Asger catches on to Iben’s code – “sweetie,” she continuously adds to her fragmented sentences. There’s a rustle and another voice on the other end – a man’s voice, the hum of an engine, rain, and windscreen wipers – and it’s here that the film’s sound design works wonders in projecting Möller and co-writer Emil Nygaard Albertsen’s words onto a mental canvas. The sound design’s staticky execution makes for moments of hair-pulling tension – and there’s much to be found in the silences when a call drops, or when the the other end of the line is obscured.
Asger’s phone conversations with Iben reveal that she’s been kidnapped by her husband, Michael (voiced by Johan Olsen), who’s taking her to an unknown location, and left their children, Mathilde and Oliver, at home alone. Through a weaving series of phone calls – to Mathilde, to his partner and key witness in his own trial, to other dispatchers – Asger follows Iben’s breadcrumbs, and comes to terms with his own demons along the way. There’s a prickliness in the way the narrative conflates Asger’s personal police brutality story with Iben’s own experience of trauma – all the while effectively relieving him morally of his crimes while undermining Iben’s own suffering. And, while its bouts of cynicism might make for eyebrow-raising if occasionally enticing viewing, the film is a formal exercise more than anything – emulating single-location genre pieces like Locke (2013) and Phonebooth (2002).
But where The Guilty’s sound design speaks volumes to the character’s verbal tensions, its images fall flat. The formal minimalism works – to a point. By the film’s conclusion, Möller and cinematographer Jasper J. Spanning have exercised every part of Cedergren’s face, but there are only so many angles from which you can hover around one person in one room. Your mind might drift as the audio becomes more compelling than the video: Dinnage’s rushed, covertly hostile murmurs best Cedergren’s infinitely furrowed brow. And when there’s nothing pretty to look at, the narrative’s implausibility becomes thuddingly obvious.
Cinema is an inherently visual medium, and while Cedergren carries the brunt of the film’s (ultimately irksome) pathos on his face, Möller can’t match the flashiness of his story with any images worth remembering. Instead, The Guilty ends up feeling like you’re having a thrilling crime novel read to you. Maybe a podcast would’ve worked better.
The Guilty is now showing in Australian cinemas.
Samuel Harris is a freelance film and music writer, an Editor of Rough Cut and a Michael Bay apologist. He is currently undertaking Honours in Media at RMIT University and has written for Cool Accidents and Catalyst Magazine. Do not tweet him at @samewlharris.