The Guilty was reviewed out of the Toronto International Film Festival, where it made its world premiere. It will have a limited theatrical release on Sept. 24 and hit Netflix on Oct. 1.
A one-location, mostly one-man show from director Antoine Fuqua, The Guilty follows a 911 dispatcher in a race against time as he scrambles to save a kidnapped woman on an L.A. highway. As a self-contained movie, it’s occasionally thrilling, and features an explosive and engaging lead performance by the ever-reliable Jake Gyllenhaal. However, as a remake of Denmark’s 2019 Oscar entry Den skyldige, it occupies a strange place as a beat-for-beat carbon copy that attempts to re-frame its story for modern America without changing all that much.
Gyllenhaal plays Joe Baylor, a short-tempered LAPD beat cop on his final early-morning dispatch shift before being let back out on the streets. He’s due in court later that day for reasons the film withholds, and raging California wildfires have complicated his last day manning the phones. He has little time or patience for calls that aren’t life-or-death, and he even blames several callers for their own misfortunes. But when he gets a mysterious call from a distressed woman being held in a moving van — Emily (Riley Keough), who pretends to be speaking to her young daughter to avoid tipping off her ex-husband, Henry (Peter Sarsgaard) — Baylor’s night takes a number of winding turns, and he begins to play fast-and-loose with standard procedure.
The film rarely cuts away from Gyllenhaal, who anchors the American version of the story with a mix of aggression and exhaustion. Baylor fancies himself a righteous protector, even though neither the people of L.A., nor the coworkers he rubs the wrong way with his temper, seem to agree. Like in the Danish film, the character’s self-righteousness is one half of what drives him to go off-book and bend the rules if it means bringing Emily home safely to her daughter. The other half of his motivation, however, was concocted for the remake (which was written by True Detective creator Nic Pizzolatto), and adds significant thematic heft. Unlike the dispatcher in the original, Baylor is a father to a young girl, and his impending court case has put significant strain on his marriage. In Emily and Henry, he sees two versions of himself — a loving parent, and a seemingly violent man who deserves to be punished for his transgressions — and so the situation becomes immediately personal.
In addition to this change in backstory, the remake also makes a few notable aesthetic adjustments. The dispatch center in Fuqua’s version is much gloomier, and the way he and cinematographer Maz Makhani capture Baylor adds a sense of unease. Their camera floats and shakes with every new reveal and each time Baylor’s emotions intensify, and even though the character is mostly shot in close-ups, the long lenses both obscure him behind computer screens and other obstructions out of focus, and create a haze of light around him from sources in the distance (the room is much bigger than in the original, too). The result is a constant lack of clarity, both in Baylor’s background and in what lies in front of him, and even his most intimate moments feel as though they’re being peered in on from a distance.
However, despite these adjustments that work in a micro, moment-to-moment sense, the overarching changes feel strangely noncommittal. The wildfires raging elsewhere in the city are a nice location (and era) specific touch, and they occasionally throw obstacles in the path of the officers and other dispatchers who Baylor speaks to over the phone, but the film also steps outside the dispatch office on two occasions, to briefly portray the chase as it unfolds amid the fiery mayhem. These scenes of smoke and ash fade over Baylor’s close-ups, and whether they’re meant to portray the reality of events on the ground or merely Baylor’s conception of them, they end up so fleeting and infrequent as to be almost meaningless. For a film that stays fixed on one character and his mood for nearly 100% of its runtime, these rare moments when it breaks away from him add little to his story. The imagery is intense, and the fades border on impressionistic — no other characters are seen around the flames, only hints of people, vehicles and ideas, contrasted with Baylor’s close-ups in a cold constricting environment — but these shots aren’t employed with much thought toward what this raging fire represents for Baylor, beyond the mechanics of the plot. Before long, the film discards what could have been an interesting visual idea.
The other idea that feels only half-committed to is what the film wants to say about policing. Like the original story, it uses the systemic abuse of power as a general backdrop, between Baylor’s past actions (which the film reveals at dramatically precise moments) and his callousness toward several callers. But in both the original and this remake, this premise is merely an excuse to focus on a powerhouse performance, which, in this case, sees Gyllenhaal plunge into a desperate fury, which in turn forces Baylor to reflect on himself as more details of Emily’s case come to light. The film is intimate, but isolated; it isn’t a story about top-down corruption, or about structures that protect violent offenders in uniform, even though these are part of its setting. It doesn’t need to be these things, either — it’s a mere slice of the bigger picture, not a telling of the bigger picture itself — but Fuqua and Pizzolatto attempt to sprinkle additional commentary on top of the existing story, rather than weaving it organically into its plot or characters.
The overarching changes feel strangely noncommittal.
Like the original, The Guilty is inherently constricting from a thematic standpoint. Its hyper-focus on one single character leaves little room to explore the wider world around him — this is by design. Using this structure to make broader statements about American policing, without also adjusting the plot or the one-location gimmick, results in half-hearted commentary that takes the form of stray lines of dialogue from minor characters who don’t factor into the story, and audio clips of news broadcasts meant to evoke recent conversations about policing and injustice. These are about as useful to a claustrophobic thriller as captions explaining the subtext, as if viewers might miss the fact that Baylor is a cop with anger issues after the tenth time he snaps at his coworkers.
Despite its clumsy attempts at social commentary — in a story where the commentary was already apparent — The Guilty proves to be riveting at times, thanks to Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance, and the way he wears complicated and conflicting emotions on his sleeve. Those who enjoyed the original will likely find little else to grab onto, but both versions are worthwhile for their leading men, and you could do a lot worse than 90 minutes of Gyllenhaal at his most intense.
Jake Gyllenhaal shines as a 911 dispatcher in The Guilty, Antoine Fuqua’s remake of a Danish thriller, which attempts to re-frame the one-man, one-location story for modern America without changing very much. Its efforts at social commentary mostly fall flat, but its thrilling moments and Gyllenhaal’s intense performance largely make up for that.