Beirut + The Guilty: Thriller Dos and Don’ts

Image courtesy of Bleecker Street.

Beirut: *
The Guilty: ****

Two movies that recently screened in Chicago provide apt illustrations of how one should – and shouldn’t – go about making a thriller. The first, Gustav Möller’s The Guilty, follows Asger (Jakob Cedergren), a Danish emergency dispatcher who attempts to locate and rescue a kidnapped woman (Jessica Dinnage). And the second, Brad Anderson’s Beirut, stars Jon Hamm as Mason Skiles, an alcoholic lawyer who negotiates a prisoner exchange in pre-civil war Lebanon. (Note that Beirut has already run through its nationwide release. The Guilty premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, and it might be making its way into theaters later this year.)

Image courtesy of Bleecker Street.

Let’s start with the thriller that doesn’t work. Like so many other movies nowadays, Beirut is most distinguished by the thinness of its narrative. Sure, Skiles gets some character development: we learn that his wife was killed by a radical militia, and it’s possible he agreed to negotiate the aforementioned prisoner exchange out of some desire for closure. Unfortunately, however, the film gets so caught up in the blow-by-blow details of the exchange negotiations that it never bothers expanding on this idea. Both Skiles and the CIA agent (Rosamund Pike) he works with get turned into pawns, mere vehicles whose sole purpose is to help you move through an endless series of narrative hoops. As such, if you eventually find that you don’t care about Beirut’s characters, you shouldn’t be surprised – because that’s precisely how Anderson feels about them, too.

On a stylistic level, moreover, Beirut subscribes to the mistaken idea that more movement and speed necessarily equal more suspense. You can easily see this attitude at work in the cinematography: like a restless infant, the camera can’t stay still for more than two seconds at a time. But such a belief in motion for motion’s sake is also manifest in the editing, which is characterized by an excessive number of rapid cuts and disorienting attempts at cross-cutting. Altogether, it’s almost as though Anderson knew that Beirut’s storyline doesn’t have enough substance to attract viewers on its own. His stylistic attempts to compensate for this, however, prove overdone – and in the end, their blatancy will merely leave you distracted, confused, and frustrated.

Image courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Meanwhile, if Beirut looks more exciting than it actually is, The Guilty conversely doesn’t appear to have anything going for it – at least not at first. Physically speaking, after all, the film is entirely set in a nondescript, two-room office building. The action represented in the narrative unfolds over a time period that’s just as long as the film itself (a mere 1.5 hours). And while Möller does introduce a subplot regarding Asger’s past – it turns out Asger was previously demoted from his job as a patrol officer – the film generally keeps its focus on just one thing: Asger’s quest to save the kidnapped woman.

Given Möller’s adherence to these dramaturgical “unities,” you’d be forgiven for thinking that The Guilty is just a filmed stage production. In reality, however, Möller regularly employs the unique tools of cinema to transcend the potential limitations of his theatrical setup. To highlight just how powerless Asger feels as a mere desk worker, for instance, Möller frequently makes use of long takes and cramped close-ups, two tools that have no ready equivalent in the theatrical medium. Additionally, when he’s not on the phone, Asger is usually shown staring off into space, and during these moments, Möller likes to mute the film’s sound. This manipulation of the soundscape effectively speaks to both Asger’s mental exhaustion and his feeling of purposelessness post-demotion, and as with the aforementioned long takes, it’s a technique that other artistic mediums would have a hard time replicating.

Image courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Beyond its easily overlooked use of distinctively cinematic techniques, The Guilty also stands out for the way it involves us in its narrative. Möller always gives us a lot of aural information about the callers Asger talks to (e.g. the sounds of their voices, the ambient noise of whatever place they’re calling from). But crucially, Möller never shows us what these callers look like – and as a result, you constantly find yourself trying to “fill in” these details with your imagination. Put another way: the film’s confined, two-room setting might seem like a recipe for boredom. But as with Locke (2013), Möller’s minimalist mise-en-scène actually increases our investment in the storyline. The absence of narratively important visuals forces us to actively participate in the creation of the film’s world, and in that sense, The Guilty ultimately proves a far more engaging and meaningful experience than the comparatively in-your-face Beirut. 

One quick final note regarding The Guilty’s narrative content. If you were just looking at the attention it devotes to character development, The Guilty would already have the upper hand over Beirut: Skiles’ backstory is irrelevant to the latter, but Asger’s plays an essential role in the denouement of the former. More importantly, however, the world of The Guilty also has a moral complexity that Beirut’s doesn’t. If Skiles is generally depicted as an above-the-fray savior, Asger turns out to be anything but, and The Guilty eventually harnesses Asger’s moral fallibility to question the very objectivity of our criminal justice system. Just two extra reasons, in short, why The Guilty – not the antics of Jon Hamm – deserves a spot at the very top of your viewing list.

Image courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

***

Beirut (2018) The Guilty (2018)
Starring: Jon Hamm, Rosamund Pike Jakob Cedergren
Running Time: 109 minutes 85 minutes
MPAA Rating: R Not rated
Produced by: Tony Gilroy, Ted Field, Mike Weber,
Shivani Rawat, Monica Levinson
Lina Flint
Written by: Tony Gilroy Gustav Möller, Emily Nygaard Albertsen
Directed by: Brad Anderson Gustav Möller