Southpaw collaborators Antoine Fuqua and Jake Gyllenhaal reteam for The Guilty, an English-language remake of a Danish thriller about a cop who sucks at his job spending a shift at work, sucking at his job. The fact that the film was shot during the pandemic in 2020 is fairly cleverly disguised by the nature of the film itself. It is, like Locke, Moon, Buried, and All Is Lost, a film predominately centered on one person in one space. Gyllenhaal spends most of the film alone in an office, with other people only occasionally sticking their head in the room to see how he’s doing (always badly). The “phone cast” of characters that call throughout the film is great, though, including Ethan Hawke, Riley Keough, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Eli Goree, Paul Dano, Peter Sarsgaard, and Bill Burr. This is one pandemic film that doesn’t feel like a “pandemic film”, thanks to its central gimmick.
Gyllenhaal stars as the cop, Joe, a detective on desk duty for the extremely obvious reason of why detectives get desk duty in the US of A. If that was supposed to be a mystery, years and years of American police violence ensure that it is not. (Did this work better for Danish audiences in the original film?) Joe’s assignment is to answer calls at a 911 dispatch center, a job that seems like a screaming nightmare on the best of days, let alone in Los Angeles while a wildfire is raging, making everything ten times more difficult for first responders. This is the most interesting part of The Guilty, as Joe and a network of dispatchers and police try to figure out what resources they can actually use—helicopters are out because of wind and smoke—and try to find one specific vehicle on the road when visibility is for sh-t. It’s so stressful!
Joe is already under a lot of stress when Emily (Riley Keough) calls in, whispering into the phone that she’s been abducted. Joe immediately starts trying to send police to help her, but he needs a clear description of the vehicle she’s in, a license plate number, a precise location, all things difficult to obtain from a kidnapping victim mid-kidnapping. In fact, getting precise locations is a major hurdle throughout the film, and Fuqua and screenwriter Nic Pizzolatto do a great job establishing the bureaucracy of 911. No, it’s not as easy as the computers magically knowing where you are. Joe can only see a radius of where a person is based on cell towers, and over and over again he is hectored for more precise locations, and in turn he hectors callers to tell him where they are, and Joe shrieking, “Tell me where you are!” is about 45% of the film.
Another thing done well in The Guilty is seeding what a bad cop Joe is throughout his interactions with callers. He is quick to blame people for, essentially, victimizing themselves, such as bicycling while drunk, or getting mugged by a sex worker one solicited. It’s not helpful in any way, and those relatively harmless judgments passed by Joe early on begin taking on a bigger, darker shape as he makes assumptions and judgments about Emily and her circumstances as an abductee. Joe’s terrible decision-making and judgmental attitude make it very clear how he came to be in the trouble he’s in, so that by the time he delivers his big confession at the end, it almost feels redundant. All the pieces of what’s going on with Joe are there, and it’s not hard to put them together.
But that confessional monologue is spectacular, thanks to Gyllenhaal. He is one of a few actors who can successfully hold the screen on his own like this and not ever be boring. I just wish the material was up to Gyllenhaal’s level. He is making a meal out of scraps here, and Fuqua is trying equally hard to make The Guilty interesting to look at, but we are stuck in an office for most of the film. Fuqua fills his frame with Gyllenhaal’s A+ face, though this thriller isn’t very thrilling, so you will be excused if you find yourself studying Gyllenhaal’s poreless skin and wondering what his skincare routine is like. A more engaging film would not leave time to contemplate the creams and serums of a Hollywood star, but The Guilty is only intermittently engaging, so there is plenty of time to ponder Gyllenhaal’s smooth visage and the role not bathing may play in its maintenance. The Guilty might be a moderately successful thriller, but it is a very successful advertisement for whatever goop Jake Gyllenhaal is putting on his face. Also, it is only 90 minutes long.
The Guilty opens in limited release on September 24, and will stream worldwide on Netflix from October 1.