The Guilty, which serves as an American remake of a 2018 Danish film (which I have not seen), and the second collaboration between director Antoine Fuqua and star Jake Gyllenhaal, after 2015’s Southpaw. Gyllenhaal’s performance is tremendous, though I have a hard time seeing him getting the credit he deserves here. This movie is truly all Gyllenhaal and it lives and dies based on him (spoiler, it lives). To the point, an actor needs a certain level of chutzpah to even attempt something like what Gyllenhaal does in The Guilty. It’s truly all him.
With a screenplay by Nic Pizzolatto, The Guilty starts, and ends, with Gyllenhaal’s Officer Joe Baylor on the phone. He’s sitting in an LAPD command center taking 911 calls, but we get the sense quickly this isn’t his regular job. Something happened, taking him off the street, and the details of what happened – certainly nothing good since reporters keep calling him for comment and a court appearance the next day is often referenced – are filled in as the movie goes along.
Joe gets a call from a woman named Emily (voiced by Riley Keough) who insinuates she’s been kidnapped and is in a movie vehicle. She called 911 pretending to be calling her young daughter and Baylor picks up on this, only being able to communicate with yes or no questions, because the man who kidnapped her can hear everything she says. The movie quickly transforms into a puzzle, as Joe uses all his resources to figure out who this woman is, who has taken her, and where they might be going. The plot itself isn’t unique: a beleaguered cop has to track down a kidnapped woman. But what makes it unique is Joe does it all from behind a desk and on the phone.
It’s a remarkable experience because what this movie does is allows a viewer’s imagination to create scenes. Joe is on the phone with other officers when they check residences for clues, and we only hear the audio of what’s going on at those locations, but I remember them as fully formed scenes. A person’s brain just kind of takes over and fills in the grizzliest of details, making for an unsettling experience, even though we aren’t seeing much of anything except Gyllenhaal’s facial reactions to what we are all hearing. And it’s why Gyllenhaal is so masterful in this role. He knows our entire visual experience, what we imagine, will be dictated by his face. It’s quite a thing.
I’m a big fan of Antione Fuqua’s movies. He’s got the flair for action, of someone like Tony Scott, but with an undercurrent of social issues, when he wants to. And sometimes he wants to and sometimes he doesn’t, which makes me admire him even more. The Guilty is Fuqua’s third movie that focuses on police officers and, yes, he certainly has something to say this time. Though, from what I can tell, the plot of the film follows the original film closely, but there’s a reveal that feels uniquely like an American issue. Again, the main plot of the movie is about Joe Butler trying to solve a crime, but there’s an undercurrent here that taps into a lot of what we saw last summer. To the point that I don’t know how this movie works without it.
But, again, this is Jake Gyllenhaal’s show. He’s not just in every scene, he’s in at least 90 percent of the movie just by himself, talking to people on the phone, trying to figure out what happened to this woman, the night before what’s going to be one of the worst days of his life. This movie was filmed last November, before we had Covid vaccines and we had to rely completely on distancing and testing. I do wonder if the movie would be any different if it was not filmed under those conditions. Since it focuses so much on Gyllenhaal on his own, it is kind of the perfect movie to try and make during a pandemic. Maybe the circumstances were a happy accident for the movie. Maybe in normal times (whatever that means now) we’d have seen some of those external scenes, taking that away from our imaginations. Maybe it’s less harrowing because of that. Maybe the most disturbing thing we can watch in a movie like this is Gyllenhaal’s face react to the horror. Regardless of how it happened, it certainly worked.
‘The Guilty’ will stream via Netflix on Friday, October 1. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.