Review: THE GUILTY, Modest, Mid-Level Fuqua-Gyllenhaal Collaboration

Jake Gyllenhaal stars in director Antoine Fuqua's remake of a Danish original, now in theaters and streaming soon on Netflix.

Lead Critic; San Francisco, California
Review: THE GUILTY, Modest, Mid-Level Fuqua-Gyllenhaal Collaboration

Practically a beat-for-beat remake of The Guilty, Denmark’s shortlisted submission to the 2018 Academy Awards for Best Foreign Film, Antoine Fuqua (The Magnificent Seven, The Equalizer, Training Day) and Jake Gyllenhaal’s (Velvet Buzzsaw, Wildlife, Nocturnal Animals) first collaboration in six years (Southpaw), delivers surface-level tension, suspense, and the occasional thrill over its efficient, compact 91-minute running time (including credits).

Beyond giving Fuqua, Gyllenhaal, and their filmmaking crew busywork during the still ongoing pandemic, The Guilty ultimately fails to justify its existence as a standalone film worthy of a viewer’s time or attention when the modestly budgeted, far more effective, original can be found online to stream or rent via the usual, on-demand suspects.
Within its single setting, a 9-1-1 call center in Los Angeles, Gyllenhaal stars as the generically named Joe Baylor, an Los Angeles police officer demoted from active duty to working as an emergency operator after an “officer-involved shooting” (a euphemism that all but absolves officers of their direct involvement). To add some topical flavor and hopefully separate the remake from the original, Fuqua and his screenwriter, Nic Pizzolatto (True Detective), use an out-of-control wildfire in the Hollywood Hills to inject contemporary relevance into an otherwise non-specific story as well as distinguish the remake from the Danish original.

Visually, the wildfires add a minimal level of spectacle as they’re captured on massive, high-definition TVs at the call center, while also creating a narrative restraint: With the LAPD, the California Highway Patrol, and various other search and rescue departments otherwise occupied, that leaves routine calls for non-emergency aid unattended and emergency calls all but impossible to answer in a timely manner.   

With a hearing or trial only hours away, an obviously on-edge Baylor takes the usual assortment of 9-1-1 calls, from an out-of-town businessman (voiced by Paul Dano) literally caught with his pants down early in his shift and a fallen cyclist later on. Not surprisingly, Baylor can’t hide the emotional and mental stress he’s under, delivering questionable advice to callers outside his responsibilities or attempting to reach his preteen daughter for a late-night call.

Under other circumstances, Baylor’s edgy, non-professional behavior should get him a quick hook, but presumably the call center, like every social/governmental service dealing directly or indirectly with the wildfires, can’t afford to let anyone cut their shifts short.

When Baylor takes a 9-1-1 call from a desperate, frantic woman who identifies herself as Emily Lighton (Riley Keough), he switches into white knight/savior mode. Emily claims she’s been kidnapped and being taken to an undisclosed location. Pretending she’s speaking to her preteen daughter, Abby (Christiana Montoya), Emily gives Baylor just enough information to get him hooked on saving her from her kidnapper (Peter Sarsgaard).

But at least for one more night, Baylor isn’t a police officer. He's an emergency operator, meaning he can’t do anything beyond moving up and down the chain of command, including his former boss, Sergeant Bill Miller (Ethan Hawke), and hoping beyond hope they’ll step in and step up to help Emily, giving Baylor the win (a life for a life, balancing the ledger in his head) he desperately needs.

Rare among his contemporaries, Gyllenhaal can be never accused of slacking or phoning in a paycheck role. For Gyllenhaal, paycheck roles don’t exist or if they do, he’ll still deliver a full-bodied performance, throwing himself, sometimes literally, into roles that often demand or ask little of their respective actors.

Gyllenhaal’s performance in The Guilty is no different. The opening shot shows Gyllenhaal as Baylor in an overlit, anonymous bathroom, all but gasping for breath as he stares into a mirror. (In a bit of cliched storytelling, Baylor suffers from severe asthma, necessitating frequent drags on his inhaler at inopportune times.) It’s an intense, maybe too intense, performance, given the role and the material, suggesting Baylor needs just a slight push before he’ll slip or fall over the edge (next stop, nervous breakdown).

Outside, however, of giving Gyllenhaal a meaty lead role where he’s front-and-center for all but one or two cutaway scenes, often in extreme close-up and in shallow focus, and of giving Fuqua a low-effort directing assignment in between his higher profile, big-budget efforts, or giving a filmmaking crew some work during the pandemic, there’s little, if anything to justify why The Guilty was made or why viewers non-adverse to subtitles or who aren’t diehard fans of Gyllenhaal or Fuqua completists simply wouldn’t seek out the superior original.

The Guilty opened in select theaters on Friday, September 24, and will premiere on Netflix on Friday, October 1.

The Guilty

  • Antoine Fuqua
  • Nic Pizzolatto
  • Gustav Möller
  • Emil Nygaard Albertsen
  • Jake Gyllenhaal
  • Riley Keough
  • Peter Sarsgaard
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Adrian MartinezAntoine FuquaEthan HawkeJake GyllenhaalNic PizzolattoPaul DanoPeter SarsgaardRiley KeoughUSGustav MöllerEmil Nygaard AlbertsenCrimeDramaThriller

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