Closely following the one-man plot of its 2018 Danish source material (which went on to become Denmark’s Oscar contender that year), The Guilty finds a way to be both faithful to the original while also being uniquely American in its approach to its story of demoted police officer Joe Baylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) working a 9-1-1 call dispatch desk on the eve of a hearing that will decide his future on the job. In many ways, The Guilty is the perfect movie to make during a pandemic since it’s mostly a single character alone or surrounded by other 9-1-1 operators who are largely glued to their consoles. The only other characters are a series of voices on the phone, including a woman named Emily (Riley Keough), who says she is being kidnapped by her estranged husband Henry, who is in all likelihood going to kill her before the day is done.
Working from a script by screenwriter Nic Pizzolatto (“True Detective”; The Magnificent Seven) and directed by Antoine Fuqua, The Guilty is an unfiltered acting exercise for Gyllenhaal, whose character has done something on the job that has put his career in serious jeopardy, killed his marriage, and pushed him into a state of mind that makes him angry and desperate, all of which he channels into saving this woman using the few clues she has given him about her location and the type of car she’s in. She pretends she’s talking to their young daughter Abby (Christiana Montoya), who is home alone with her infant brother, who may or may not still be alive.
The way Fuqua amps up the tension is impressive and sometimes terrifying, but it’s only increased by a bank of monitors at the front of the call center all showing news footage of the raging California wildfires that are taking up most of the emergency calls coming in on the phones. But it’s also a none-too-subtle representation of Joe’s deeply unstable mindset. He makes calls to the California Highway Patrol’s dispatch officer (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) to help deploy, his old sergeant (Ethan Hawke), his partner (Eli Goree, who recently played Muhammad Ali in One Night in Miami), and even the kidnapping husband (Peter Sarsgaard), all the while fielding the occasional nonsense emergency call from a guy (Paul Dano) who gets robbed by a hooker he tries to pick up, and a riled-up partygoer (Bill Burr). But it’s the back-and-forth between Gyllenhaal and Keough that drives the film. He needs a win in his life and has pinned all of his hopes on this one case.
During the course of the film, we gets small hints as to what Joe did to get into so much trouble, while also having the details of the kidnapping come a bit more into focus. The movie is a fascinating, mostly successful attempt to recontextualize the role of police officers in today’s America, while also giving us crystal clear example of how important they are to the fabric of society. I’m not entirely sure The Guilty makes its case as clearly as it thinks it does, because I’m not sure that’s possible in the current climate. But I admire Fuqua and Pizzolatto’s efforts, even if one of their messages comes out fuzzy. It’s still a deeply effective, tense bit of theater, with a lead performance that’s as strong as anything Gyllenhaal has done to date. More of a placeholder project to keep the primary players sharp while other productions are being delayed, The Guilty still gets the dramatic job done with its hard-hitting story.
The film is now streaming on Netflix.
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