Directed by: Antoine Fuqua
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Riley Keough, Peter Sarsgaard
Containment thrillers seem like the obvious choice for pandemic film projects. Never mind the fact that Jake Gyllenhaal acquired the rights to the Danish film The Guilty not long after its release back in 2018. Partnering up with Antoine Fuqua, the man who directed him in the 2015 boxing film Southpaw, and hiring Nic Pizzolatto to pen the script, the actor/producer didn’t actually begin filming until last November, right as COVID cases were peaking once again in the US. On set for only 11 days, Gyllenhaal was directed by Fuqua remotely through headsets, increasing the star’s sense of panic and anxiety as his character, Officer Joe Baylor, tries to save a woman and her children over the phone, with a computer being the only resource in front of him.
Joe is dealing with a lot. He’s going to trial the next morning for killing a young man in the line of duty. Meanwhile, his estranged wife doesn’t want him seeing their daughter, and the raging fires around Los Angeles are taking a toll on his severe asthma—the reason why he can leave his post as a 9-1-1 dispatcher.
He was demoted a few months ago to this desk job, which mostly consists of reasoning with tripped-out junkies or people falling off their bikes. So when he gets a call from a whispering woman who’s been abducted, he nearly hangs up. It’s unclear how realistic Joe’s experience is with his callers, but nevertheless this is his experience as we understand it.
The woman on the call, Emily (voiced by Riley Keough), pretends to be talking to her young daughter on the phone, but Joe catches on quickly, sensing she’s in danger, and starts asking yes or no questions. He also discovers that Emily’s two kids, a 6-year-old daughter and an infant son, are home by themselves. With the little information he has, he goes back and forth between the Highway Patrol and local cops to piece together the story, all the while desperately seeking catharsis from this situation as it indirectly relates to his own.
Typically, when a filmmaker remakes a beloved foreign-language film for US audiences, much of the essence of the original gets lost in the Hollywood gloss. But Fuqua makes sure to hide the seams with smooth editing that rests comfortably in the space where Joe resides, yielding a brisk pace with valuable suspense. The director keeps us up close to our protagonist with a shallow depth of field, blurring the characters close by—that is, unless they come into Joe’s limited scope and grab his attention.
The Guilty is really about people who feel trapped in the system, swallowed by one mistake, which may have very well been influenced by the compounding of a bunch of smaller missteps.
The film obviously breathes with Gyllenhaal’s performance, where the actor showcases once again his great naturalistic instincts as he curates his responses to everything around him and the information he’s receiving, turning his role into a character study when it may not have necessarily been designed that way originally The story underneath develops in clever ways with chilling reveals and unexpected twists all the way up to the end, taking us on a journey that becomes symbiotic with Joe.
He’s no longer just a character affected by this terrible and, at times, painful scenario on the other side of the phone, but it truly feels like he possesses something unique enough to get this thing solved. And it’s his personal life experiences that inform the way he does so. Almost the entirety of the dialogue in the film transpires over the phone, which is constructed so fluidly by Fuqua, film editor Jason Ballantine, and dialogue editor Micah Loken, but we must also not forget the incredible actors who lend only their voices for the other sides of these conversations, including Keough, Peter Sarsgaard, Eli Goree, Ethan Hawke, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, and a host of others.
The Guilty is really about people who feel trapped in the system, swallowed by one mistake, which may have very well been influenced by the compounding of a bunch of smaller missteps. And surprisingly, the film finds sympathy for a police officer who makes a terrible mistake and regrets it, showing us that he does in fact value life after all.
We never really find out the full story behind Joe’s police shooting outside of a few details here and there, but the film concerns itself more with its protagonist finding his own honesty behind his actions rather than if he’s actually guilty. Fuqua is consistent in telling his story objectively with very little attempt to sway the viewer, which is a main reason why this is a worthy remake, despite any claims of it “unnecessarily” rehashing the original.