Sundance 2018: Gustav Möller’s The Guilty

“Filmed entirely within an emergency call center, Danish director Gustav Möller’s The Guilty (Den skyldige) is a claustrophobic thriller that finds fascinating ways to transcend, spiritually, its confines,” begins Bilge Ebiri in the Village Voice. “Pretty much the whole film consists of phone exchanges between Asger Holm (Jakob Cedergren), a police officer who has been temporarily demoted to working the phones, and others out in the field as he struggles to save a woman who is being abducted by her ex-husband. Möller handles that solid premise with artful suspense: Asger initially has to keep the tearful, terrified victim, Iben, on the phone as long as he can, telling her to pretend she’s speaking to her young daughter on the other line. Meanwhile, he’s barking orders to emergency dispatch, to the highway police, even to his old partner, who appears to be drunk and off-duty.”

“‘Tom Hardy in Locke meets Halle Berry in The Call’ sounds like the kind of absurd pitch you’d hear from an over-zealous fictional producer in a broad Tinseltown satire,” muses Variety’s Guy Lodge, “yet it’s not entirely the wrong number for The Guilty, a high-concept, low-budget and skillfully muscle-tensing Danish thriller to which you can imagine more than a couple of eager Tinseltown execs angling for the remake rights.”

This is “a twisty crime thriller that’s every bit as pulse-pounding and involving as its action-oriented, adrenaline-soaked counterparts,” writes Michael Rechtshaffen in the Hollywood Reporter. Möller “masterfully ratchets up tension without the benefit of the usual visual aids, forcing viewers to dust off their imaginations and put them to work with chillingly effective results.”

“Möller doesn't pull any punches dramatically,” writes Peter Martin at ScreenAnarchy, “and the consequences of Asger's decisions are felt fully, in part due to the superb, measured, and extremely empathetic performance by Jakob Cedergren. His shifting emotions are manifested in his face and voice, especially, but not in an overtly showy manner. The premise of The Guilty is easy to describe, but it only begins to hint at the riveting emotional complexity that unfolds during its ninety or so minutes.”

“Möller, who co-wrote this with Emil Nygaard Albertsen and executed it with a team of fellow recent Danish Film School graduates, doles out the information with a precise rhythm—not that the film has any score to help.” Screen’s Fionnuala Halligan: “Instead it’s the sound that draws a great deal of this picture, cutting between the call centre and the rain of North Zealand where what appears to be a brutal abduction is taking place. The sound of the windscreen wipers coming down the telephone line feels like a mounting pulse.”

“This polished, well-calibrated thriller . . . is a best-in-class showcase of the possibilities of cinema even with the most limited of resources,” adds Tomris Laffly at At the Playlist, Kimber Myers gives the film a B, and Edward Davis has a clip and the poster.

Updates, 1/22: For Mike D’Angelo, “there are just too many independent unlikely events, all of which have to occur in order for even a blinkered antihero to screw things up this badly. Thought Möller had won me back over at the end, but then he adds a cheap additional misdirection (for which I did not fall), and I got annoyed at the contrivance again. Crackerjack feature debut, though.”

At Cineuropa, Vassilis Economou notes that some of these long takes “can last up to thirty-five minutes . . . The combination of Cedergren’s physical performance and [Jessica] Dinnage’s tragically intense voice creates a pseudo-realistic environment in which the audience should totally submerge themselves in order to feel the full impact of this refreshing approach to the psychological crime-thriller.”

Updates, 1/23: “Magnolia Pictures has made a winning plea for North American rights,” reports Eric Pedersen for Deadline.

“As The Guilty zigzags through a series of developments, its premise starts to wear and some of the biggest twists feel almost too neatly inserted to keep forward momentum in check,” finds IndieWire’s Eric Kohn. “Nevertheless, there’s a weaker version of this movie that would involve cutaways to the various other locations Asger reaches by phone, and part of the thrill factor comes from imagining those scenarios along with the beleaguered protagonist. Much of the movie unfolds in his imagination, which sets the stage for some misdirection that pays off in a suspenseful climax that remains unpredictable until the very last call.”

The Guilty is one of the films Nicolas Rapold and Eric Hynes discuss on a recent episode of the Film Comment Podcast (32’20”).

Updates, 1/25: “The action is just as vivid, even if wholly psychological, as any race against time action thriller,” writes John Fink at the Film Stage.

The Salt Lake City Weekly’s Victor Morton gives a shoutout to the “world-class sound design (Oskar Skriver is the inventive wizard) that creates pictures in our heads better than some cinematographers.”

Update, 1/27: “The writing and acting are sharp as a tack,” writes Flavorwire’s Jason Bailey, “but Möller’s real skill is understanding and manipulating audience expectation—there are scenes where he knows we’re ahead of him, creating unbearable tension as we wait for the movie to catch up, and then he’ll turn the whole movie upside down. Crisp, slippery, and smashing.”

Update, 1/28:Rolling Stone’s David Fear finds that “the movie revels in having a straight-up B-movie plot that, in the hands of this first-time feature director and his lead, becomes a pitch-perfect example of how to get more out of less.”

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