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Review: The Guilty

An emergency hotline operator takes a terrifying call and decides to solve what seems like a kidnapping situation by himself. The Guilty  is a beautiful combination of simplicity and complexity. One actor, one location and a million emotions is what you get with Gustav Möller’s debut film.

I have seen many of the “big” films of this summer: The Indestructibles 2, Mamma Mia – Here we go again, Mission Impossible – Fallout, and more. They were all enjoyable – but all very predictable. They feel like extensions of worlds and characters we know well rather than good films that could stand alone. I was starting to lose hope of seeing a truly good film, and then I saw The Guilty, which proves that you don’t need special effects, amazing locations or an enormous production budget to make a great film.

The narrative concept of The Guilty is simple. It is a thriller about a man trying to solve a kidnapping. What sets it apart from other films in its genre is the fact that we never leave the call center, but watch the main character trying to uncover what is going on from the phone conversations he is having. Not once do we see anything other than him, frantically calling people. The director has acknowledged that a key influence on his film was the podcast “Serial” about a real-life murder, which uses interviews and location research to explore whether the main suspect really was the murderer. Möller found it fascinating how images were created with sound and could change as new clues and characters came in.

In The Guilty, the unique narrative style perfectly serves the equally unique story. It is impossible to guess where the story will go, because it does not follow the typical codes of cinema storytelling. As it unfolds, we realise the film is more about the protagonist and our vision of him than about the actual kidnapping. What we are seeing is the deconstruction of a hero. Möller plays with the viewer’s preconceptions and little by little, we discover that the main character is far from perfect.  Audiences instinctively side with the main character because in every film you have ever seen, when the hero decides to break the law, it turns out to be the right decision.  In this film, things are more complicated. Maybe he should not have done what he did, and that is refreshingly and surprisingly realistic. Another element I really liked was a plot twist that revealed a sexist presumption that touches men. For once, it is subtly suggested that we should not judge anyone (women or men) by first appearances (or first phone call).

Like the story, the visual style of the film seems simple, consisting largely of close-ups of the character’s face and actions. Yet this simplicity conveys emotions perfectly. It adds pressure and an understanding of the character, who is beautifully and very subtly played by Jakob Cedergren . A multitude of angles and frames are used to show the character’s frustration and desire to take action. The lighting is very naturalistic, but it always draws the eye to what matters most, the character’s reactions to what he is hearing.  The voices on the phone are amazing, frighteningly realistic due to very good performances but also well-researched dialogue. Never on the nose, they are at times touching, funny or confusing, like in real life.

There is also a beautiful simplicity to the work of the sound designer, Oskar Shryver. The Guilty has music but its soundtrack holds many details that really help us to understand what is going through the main character’s mind as he takes those calls. Every detail is essential: intonations, silences, footsteps, even the type of rain we hear over the phone. Further proof that this film, so simple in appearance, is admirably strong and well-constructed. Nothing is random.

For the cinemagoer, The Guilty is truly an emotional rollercoaster. Those close-ups of Jakob Cedergren on his phone elicited a stronger emotional response from me than any other thriller I have seen. It is for me, the film of the summer.