If 55% of communication is made up of body language, then the pressure put on the remaining 45% when it is primarily employed to help create a tense, powerful narrative in a visual medium like film, is immense. Writer/Director Gustav Möller sets himself a massive challenge of wringing as much tension out of a phone call as possible with his white-knuckle drama, The Guilty. He’s joined by co-writer Emil Nygaard Albertsen, and actor Jakob Cedergren, to tell the story of a police officer on the last night of his assigned role as dispatch officer, and the one emergency phone call that shapes his night.
While the ‘person on a phone’ narrative has been used as a gimmick before – some more effective (Locke) than others (Phone Booth) –, here it is employed as a way to put the viewer in the shoes of an emergency dispatch officer and allowing us to get a glimpse into the work life pressures that come with the role. The TV show 911 manages to give this role that society often takes for granted more coverage, but there it is done so with added glitz and glamour. Here, the singular setting of a small office space amplifies the claustrophobia that comes with having a person on the other end of a phone line that is desperate for a strangers help, which can only be provided via voice alone.
The focus is almost solely on Jakob Cedergren’s Asger, with the people he talks to on the other end of the phone solely existing as voices alone. Other than the knowledge that he has an important meeting the following day that will decide whether he can return to on field duty, the reason why Asger has been relegated to desk work is never explored. Yet, through Asger’s dialogue and his actions, we can glean what kind of behaviour caused Asger to be disciplined in such a way. This subtle B-plot works in service of a truly engaging, powerful A-plot where an emergency call from kidnapped Iben (Jessica Dinnage) has Asger using all his available resources to try and locate this terrified woman.
The anxiety conjured by the ferocious and immediate urgency that comes with the role of being an emergency dispatch officer is tangible. Möller manages to sit you down alongside Asger in a small room as he deals with each call as they come through. At once, the calls are deceptively casual, with the emergency that is being reported being one of perceived low importance from Asger. Yet, Möller and Albertsen’s script never belittles these emergencies, giving each one that comes through the telephone line the respect it deserves. However, for Asger, as the connection to Ibsen drops in and out as the night wears on, he has to manage his aggression over menial calls that are about basic issues like an inebriated person calling in about being lost in a city, or a car broken down. This aggression informs Asger’s character, suggesting he has a low tolerance for day to day problems that exist throughout society.
Jakob Cedergren’s performance as Asger is truly brilliant, but as a viewer we’re given the privilege of seeing his physical performance, allowing us to read his facial expressions as his night wears on. For Jessica Dinnage, her performance exists in voice alone, and it’s here that the majority of the tension within The Guilty is created. Through her words, her fear, her anxiety, and subtle background noises, we are able to conjure a mental image of her situation, which gradually changes and morphs as the calls carry on. It’s truly stunning how immediately our prejudices are exposed when a caller rings through with a problem, even though the role of a dispatch caller is supposed to be an impartial one, merely acting as a conduit for immediate danger to be transformed into eventual safety.
The tension within The Guilty is potent. It’s edge of your seat, heart in your throat stuff, paired with a truly compelling narrative that has you completely engaged all the way through to its unsettling finale. I cannot recommend this film highly enough.
Director: Gustav Möller
Cast: Jakob Cedergren, Jessica Dinnage, Jacob Lohmann
Writers: Gustav Möller, Emil Nygaard Albertsen