Director Antoine Fuqua’s passable remake of the 2018 Danish film, “The Guilty,” is a perfect film to shoot during COVID. This compact story, about a 911 dispatcher receiving a distress call, is almost an individual showcase for the actor (Jake Gyllenhaal, who also produced). In addition, it deals with another subject which occupies a preponderant place in the news, that of the duties and responsibilities of the police. Fuqua and Gyllenhaal, working from a screenplay by Nic Pizzolatto (“True Detective”), give this relentless and claustrophobic drama their all, but somehow it’s more phlegmatic than exciting. .
Joe Baylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) is first seen using his inhaler in the gender-neutral bathroom at the 911 dispatch center where he works. Joe is a Los Angeles police officer who has been demoted to office duties as he awaits trial for an unspecified incident. A Los Angeles Times reporter keeps calling her, hoping to get a citation on her court appearance the next day, but Joe fires her.
As Joe’s shift begins – the movie takes place over the course of a long night – he answers 911 calls in a flat, emotionless tone that exudes calm as he tries to help the citizens . But he quickly becomes impatient, like when a man (voiced by Paul Dano) calls about his laptop being stolen by a sex worker. Joe’s anger issues become more apparent, especially when he grows more brash, lashing out at his fellow Sgt. Wade (Christina Vidal) and his colleague, Manny (Adrian Martinez). His tone is particularly pissed off when he says to an injured cyclist, “Call an Uber and don’t ride a drunk bike, asshole!” Yes, Joe is stressed out about his upcoming trial, but he’s also having issues with his wife Jess (voiced by Gillian Zinser), who he’s been separated from for six months. She won’t let him talk to their daughter.
Joe is an anxious and raw nerve, and Gyllenhaal plays this toxic man with his typical intensity. He grabs his inhaler like a stress ball. He has verbal and physical seizures. He is a man who does not control his emotions. And, as the movie shows, maybe he cares too much. He often repeats that the job of a police officer is to provide protection.
Fuqua shoots much of the film focusing on Gyllenhaal’s face, a formidable landscape, and the actor conveys his internal and external emotions with his relentless eyes and expressions. When Joe looks at an antacid he’s practically hypnotized, and when he looks at his phone or computer screens he’s laser focused. A scene where he asks a caller to “breathe with me”, as he tries to calm them down, is also very effective.
“The Guilty” centers on a particular call Joe receives from a woman named Emily (voiced by Riley Keough, “Zola”). She hinted to Joe that she was being abducted by pretending to call her daughter. Joe becomes emotionally involved in this situation, keeping Emily in line as he connects with the police station and the California Highway Patrol. As Joe tries to coordinate a rescue (Los Angeles is also experiencing wildfires), there is a lack of concrete information. An effort to stop a white van that Joe suspects of containing Emily is inconclusive. (Fuqua switches to a blurry shot of the stopped van, which is a mistake; viewers can imagine the scene much more vividly.)
But as the evening unfolds, Joe also contacts Emily’s daughter Abby (voiced by Christiana Montoya), who describes a situation that worries Joe more. Taking the law in hand, Joe soon asks for favors from his friends and insists that the cops not only write a welfare check to Emily’s children (Abby has a little brother, Oliver), but also kick down the door to Emily’s ex-husband Henry (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard), who Joe believes he kidnapped Emily.
“The Guilty” turns into a climactic moment that involves Joe going through an emotional catharsis as the situation with Emily comes to a head. The film deliberately, judiciously buries this lede, but in doing so, it also dampens the power of the drama. (Fuqua is wrong again when he amplifies the music during one of the movie’s “turns.”) But surprisingly emotionless.
Herein lies the conundrum of the film: Viewers are expected to side with Joe, who firmly believes he is doing the “right thing” at all times. But he’s not a particularly likeable character. He yells at everyone he talks to (not at) and demands that they do whatever he wants, regardless of protocol. He’s the quintessential “empowered” white male police officer, dictating that he “does his job” – even when he’s not doing what he’s supposed to be doing. Joe’s imperfect character is also what makes “The Guilty” so interesting.
Fuqua’s movie is straightforward and compelling, and perfectly suited to both Netflix and Jake Gyllenhaal fans.
“The Guilty” is currently in theaters and streaming on Netflix starting October 1.