‘The Guilty’ is a Tight Showcase of Jake Gyllenhaal’s Talents

Even by the standards of Hollywood, the three-year turnaround from the original Danish production of The Guilty to the upcoming American remake might seem quick, and it’s likely to unleash another round of arguments about the value of these kinds of projects. Still, even as director Antoine Fuqua’s new version of The Guilty hews close to the plot and structure of the original film, it works as a well-directed and arresting thriller with an excellent central performance by Jake Gyllenhaal, justifying its existence enough to be a likely success for Netflix later later in the year.    

Back at it Again

Like the original, The Guilty covers a few hours in the life of Joe Bayler, a police officer nearing the end of his shift answering 911 calls. The shift turns into a race against time when a call from Emily, a kidnapped mother-of-two, sends him on a frantic chase to retrieve the woman and to provide support for her two children abandoned at home. But things aren’t as transparent as they seem, and as the mystery unfolds, The Guilty becomes more complicated for everyone involved.   

Before we meet Bayler, we are presented with the backdrop of the story — a raging wildfire is headed towards the city and the screen is engulfed with the blaze. It’s a stunning, bleak shot, city life as postapocalyptic hellscape. Overhead we hear dispatches from citizens, and the last words we hear before the title are, “I need to get my kids out of here.” Every pseudo-apocalypse needs a hero, and who better than a lone-wolf police-officer? We’ve seen all this before, but The Guilty is intentionally playing around with tropes. It’s a movie interested in pushing our ideas of what a hero looks like, and what we allow the seemingly heroic to get away with.

It helps that The Guilty is a reunion between director Antoine Fuqua and his Southpaw lead, Jake Gyllenhaal. The pair work well together, and Fuqua gives Gyllenhaal space to carry the weight of the story’s complexities on his shoulders, guiding us through its swerves. In both this version and the original, The Guilty depends on its main actor. We spend most of our scenes with him, with coworkers appearing only briefly on screen, and the lead spends most of his time in conversations on the phone. The camera traces his breakdowns, his anger, his frustration and — lastly — his guilt.

Phoning It In, But In a Good Way

From our first shot of Bayler, presenting him as an asthmatic whose inhaler dependence is heightened during the blazing fires, Gyllenhall characterises him as a rubber band in human form — just ready to snap. He is tense and agitated as he fields calls, judging the 911 callers who need his help, curt and on edge with his wife, openly hostile to his colleagues. We learn a little more about him as The Guilty moves on: he has an estranged wife, a daughter he longs to keep in touch with, and his co-workers are either ambivalent towards or exhausted by him. And, most importantly, he has a court case the next morning concerning some professional misconduct that we only receive the details of at the very end. In a critical change from the original, Gyllenhaal is immediately less imposing and more harried than his Danish counterpart Jakob Cedergren, which gives him a sense of fallibility. Late in the film a co-worker tells him, “Broken people help broken people” — and Bayler is broken, in a disarming way that invites us to trust him.        

A supporting cast breaks up the action as voices heard over the phone: Riley Keough as the frantic caller Emily, Peter Sarsgaard as her dubious husband, Ethan Hawke as Bayler’s friend, a brief but decisive Da’Vine Joy Randolph as a beleaguered co-worker. Fuqua gets great voice work out of these performers, but they’re all simply orbiting Gyllenhaal, who spends almost every minute on screen and thankfully is excellent throughout.         

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The Guilty

Broken Things

There’s a moment a third of the way into The Guilty when it demonstrates that it’s not a typical thriller. By this point in the film, Bayler has been presented to us as the kind of police officer we often see on screen — a hard-ass loner cop whose instincts sometimes take precedent over procedure. We aren’t expected to like him necessarily, but he commands authority. As Bayler tries to comfort Emily’s daughter, fearful and at home with a younger brother, he assures her that’s what his mandate is, as a police officer. “Do you know who the police are? We’re protectors.” Her response is a simple “No.” Bayler, off-guard, insists, “We’re protectors. We protect people.” But his words feel more like an attempt to convince himself than the grieving child, and it’s in Gyllenhaal’s eyes — a brief look of vacant desperation.  

At first, that desperation looks like a righteous, dogged pursuit of justice. But Fuqua and screenwriter Nic Pizzolato (True Detective) want to challenge the audience’s ideas about trust. Even as we might not trust the police as an entity, we are encouraged to trust Gyllenhaal, whose desperate earnestness feels too sincere to be corrupted. 

Some differences from the original push us in this direction. For example, Bayler spends the film in a plain black ensemble that is not immediately discernible as a police officer’s attire. It’s a minor, but distinct, way that we are visually encouraged to identify him as a regular man and his earnestness always encourages us to believe that his convictions about his hunches are true. These initial points are central to the two final twists which quickly come one after another in the last act. Like the original film, they come so fast that the viewer is left trying to make sense of how they feel about the resolution. 

As a critique of policing, or masculinity, The Guilty is competent but unremarkable. It’s not trying to be, though. This is a lean, sharp thriller that moves at a quick paced towards its climax. In the absence of any narrative detail that belabors the themes, Gyllenhaal wears the majority of the film’s complexities on his face. Maz Makhani’s camera frames that face in a way that feels almost too close. By the end, the camera feels like it’s intruding on private moments – every grimace of regret and shame filling up the entire frame. We want some distance — but we’ve become so complicit in this man’s journey that we cannot get away. It’s savvy work, possibly less impactful if you’re familiar with the original, and yet distinct and emphatic enough to work on its own. 

The Guilty had its World Premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, and premieres in limited release on September 24th before a Netflix release on October 1st

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