Title: The Guilty
Director: Antoine Fuqua
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Christina Vidal, Adrian Martinez, Riley Keough, Eli Goree, Peter Sarsgaard, Ethan Hawke, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Paul Dano
Jake Gyllenhaal is a talented actor. But The Guilty, the English-language remake of a solid, same-named 2018 Danish thriller filmed under special COVID-19 protocols during a two-week period last November, allows for an unchecked indulgence of all Gyllenhaal’s showiest instincts, resulting in a wearying experience which both telegraphs its one big twist and undercuts any genuine sense of character-rooted catharsis. Director Antoine Fuqua’s psychological crime drama, a solo vehicle about an intense work shift full of personal and professional reckonings for a troubled cop struggling after being demoted to 911 operator duty, never locates an emotionally authentic foundation. It instead embraces an over-cranked hysteria and pointless hostility — qualities which quickly erode any sense of investment.
The Guilty, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and is receiving a limited theatrical release in advance of its October 1 debut on Netflix, opens with Joe Baylor (Gyllenhaal) nearing the end of his shift as an emergency call center operator in Los Angeles. Agitated and lax on protocol, it soon becomes clear, through a conversation with his sergeant (voiced by Ethan Hawke), that Joe is a police detective under investigation for an incident of misconduct, and that this shift in his cool-your-jets temporary reassignment comes on the eve of an important hearing which will dictate his future.
After a couple more expected or generic calls, Joe receives a seemingly urgent one from Emily (voiced by Riley Keough), a distraught woman trapped in a van with her ex-husband Henry (voiced by Gyllenhaal’s brother-in-law Peter Sarsgaard), traveling to points unknown. As Joe works feverishly to gather more information and determine the van’s location, so that he can direct responding officers to properly intervene, his feelings boil over.
For true cinephiles, there can be a certain heady intrigue to single-character experiments — witness movies like All Is Lost, Locke, or Buried. But The Guilty simply doesn’t trust its viewers. The movie basically starts at an 11, and leaves itself with nowhere to which to build. Joe, as conceived and certainly as portrayed, is needlessly combative — a real asshole. This grabs one’s attention at first, because one wonders what his deal is. But then, a funny thing happens. As various characters either meet the heightened volatility of Joe’s behavior or refuse to realistically call him out on it, a viewer realizes that they’re not watching a thriller in which people are all responding to the tension around them and stakes are being slowly raised with vice-like expertise, they’re just watching a lot of people yell at one another, and make dumb choices.
Nic Pizzolatto (True Detective) rather dutifully transcribes most of the narrative beats of the original movie, scripted by Gustav Möller and Emil Nygaard Albertsen, while also setting it against the backdrop of a raging California wildfire, which one supposes was added to give Fuqua and cinematographer Max Makhani an excuse to include a video monitor with some eye-catching blaze footage. There’s not much nuance here, though, and certainly no sincere sense of building momentum. That’s not substantially the fault of the writing, however. The problem lies in the performances.
Jakob Cedergren’s lead turn in Möller’s much more subdued film offered up a masterful blend of inwardly reflected discord and outwardly manifested agitation. This mattered significantly in how his reaction to the phone call from Emily (Iben in the Danish movie) landed with viewers, with psychological state informing decision-making in a recognizable manner. By way of contrast, Gyllenhaal feels undirected here, honestly. Fuqua is more concerned with the visuals and compositional framing of the story, and seemingly absorbed the material only to the level of deciding that it needed “strong energy” to pull a viewer along.
Whatever direction Fuqua offered his actors (including those lending only their voices) seems to have likely been grounded in requests for greater passion, or demonstrativeness. Gyllenhaal, in a rare misstep, frequently interprets that as volume-based. This mortally wounds The Guilty, but he’s not the only offender. Keough, especially, delivers a woefully misguided vocal performance — full of weepy histrionics which wouldn’t pass muster in a first-year drama school class.
The end result, while not particularly poorly made on a technical level, is a streamlined movie (it clocks in at 90 minutes) which feels much longer than it is. The Guilty isn’t in any way explicitly about COVID-19, like something like Locked Down. It’s just another of several intimately scaled movies shot during the pandemic. Maybe, however, more robustly reimagining the original Danish film and setting it specifically in the COVID era could have helped elevate this remake, by forcing it to do something different, and grapple with an externalized threat which isn’t a police riff on an unconscious bias thought exercise. As is, the only thing of which The Guilty is guilty is misunderstanding the most relatable and engaging elements of its source material.
Written by: Brent Simon