Building tension in a film without ever leaving one room is quite an achievement to carry across an entire feature length running time. Yet Danish film The Guilty (Den skyldige, 2018) does this so effectively that it quickly becomes as gripping and heart-pounding as any other thriller. With the main action taking place off-screen, it is instead what we hear that matters – a situation that police officer Asger Holm (Jakob Cedergren) similarly finds himself in during his shift as a telephone operator at an emergency dispatch centre. Bored and resentful of his job, Asger’s world is suddenly shaken up when he receives a call from a panic-stricken woman desperate for help (Jessica Dinnage), before their conversation is abruptly cut off. With little information to go by, and confined to his drab office space, Asger is still determined to do all he can to find her – even if that means bending the rules to get what he needs.
Asger’s search for clues into the woman’s whereabouts are just the beginning of things though, his remote investigation slowly unravelling further questions about who has taken her and why, each twist and turn he encounters keeping both him and us on the edge of our seats. Using the one thing he has at his disposal – the telephone – Asger keeps his line clear, contacting others to go track the woman and her kidnapper down, his calls becoming increasingly frantic as he realises time is running out. It’s an incredible premise, and one amazingly executed by writer-director Gustav Möller and co-writer Emil Nygaard Albertsen, who keep a fraught yet steady pace throughout their script, gradually building the tension to often sickening heights. Putting us directly alongside Asger, we experience everything in the same way he does, hearing what he hears and piecing together the clues at the same time. It’s a technique that fully immerses us in the story and keeps us continually gripped, the power of our imagination making what happens off-screen that much more effective, especially when it takes a turn for the worse.
With so much of the narrative taking place where we can’t see it, the use of sound becomes a crucial element – an aspect that Möller perfectly utilises throughout. While there is no score for the film, Möller instead uses other noises that Asger hears over the phone to build the tension, creating a sort of heightened diegetic soundtrack. Windscreen wipers pound a deafening beat as he waits for some devastating news, a ringback tone drags out for a sickening length of time as he prays someone picks up, while approaching sirens keep us in dreadful suspense during a vital moment. Yet it is often the silences in between these moments that are the most nerve-shredding, Möller eking out the lack of sound as Asger impatiently waits for updates about what is happening on the other end of the line. The deep silences that follow are almost unbearable sometimes, particularly effective during one later scene in which Asger quietly tries to keep his emotions in check after realising the full horror of what another officer has just seen in the victim’s house – a moment that is so shocking we’re glad we can’t see it.
While the search for the woman ticks along rapidly, his frustration at having to rely on other people to find her steadily grows, Asger clearly wishing he could be amongst the action rather than staring at a screen. The times he has to wait for others to call back are almost torturous for him, Asger nervously watching the on-call light, hoping it will flash at any second and that the person on the other end of the line has good news for him. Jakob Cedergren’s stunning central performance makes these moments all the more taut and relatable, his portrayal slowly changing from cold and distant to wild and frantic, as Asger gradually unravels throughout the course of the film. It is a performance that anchors the whole concept and which makes the unseen action surprisingly impactful, Möller often letting the camera rest on Cedergren’s expression-filled face, which tells us all we need to know without him saying anything. Cedergren’s brilliant portrayal also hints at something darker within Asger’s life that he is trying to avoid, an aspect that Möller and Albertsen similarly allude to at certain points in the narrative. It is only when they finally reveal why Asger is working in the call centre that we fully comprehend how much this conflicted character has to lose, as well as a moral quandary he’s about to face that could change everything.
It is this skilful mix of Asger’s own backstory and the main thrilling tale at its centre which makes The Guilty so much more memorable and intriguing to watch, its final, gut-punch of an ending rounding off what is a near perfect film. Sweeping you along in the action, it flies by at every moment, Möller barely letting us catch a breath as the twists and turns keep coming. With a brilliant script, perfectly executed concept and expert direction, Möller is able to keep his film taut and engrossing, creating something that feels like it takes place in multiple locations, despite it never leaving the dim office space it’s set in. But it is Cedergren’s performance that is the most impressive, the film often hinging on his subtle and multi-layered portrayal – something that makes Asger’s journey throughout all the more impactful, and all the more real.