The Guilty

Jake Gyllenhaal in The Guilty.  Courtesy Netflix


M, 90 minutes

3 Stars


Review by © Jane Freebury

It’s always a bit of a jolt to be reminded how much drama a movie can coax from a few actors in a single location with a bunch of different camera positions and steady leavening of the emotional intensity. It takes skill to make so few tools work over the minimum 90 minutes required for a feature, and even more so with a tiny cast of characters.

Ignore the marketing that flags the name actors present here besides Jake Gyllenhaal. Yes, there’s Ethan Hawke, Peter Sarsgaard and Paula Dano, but they are only heard briefly as voices on the phone in this drama set in a police call centre. Riley Keogh certainly makes an impression, however, as a needy young woman with a breathless voice. She claims to have been abducted.

In The Guilty it is basically down to you and Gyllenhaal as Joe Baylor, a demoted police officer who is manning the phones during a hot Los Angeles night. The 911 centre, a barometer for the city’s mood, is lit low, with a bank of screens showing vision of various emergencies playing out across the precincts. There are the armed robberies and assaults, and, at the periphery, the towering fronts of the California wildfires.

It’s not just unrelieved intensity.  At least, Baylor can smile to himself about the addled voice of a guy trying to report that a tall, voluptuous hooker with pink hair and high heels has robbed him. Just as well, because, alternating between sympathy and patience with some callers and their predicaments and aggression towards others, the cop gives the impression of someone needing to decompress.

A minimalist chamber piece that depends almost entirely on Gyllenhaal’s fine performance as a policeman under pressure on several fronts

In addition to fielding calls to police emergency, this protagonist is wrestling with demons of his own. A journalist from the Los Angeles Times wants is chasing him for comment about his involvement in an incident with police that saw a young man killed eight months prior. And he is clearly feeling the strain of his divorce and the separation from his young daughter. Baylor is also an asthmatic.

For a man who usually works on the front line of policing, being put at one remove is frustrating, allowing him to do little but take calls from distressed people, identify their whereabouts and pass the details on to colleagues in the field. While he is on the eve of his appearance in court over his role in the death of the 19-year-old man, a call comes from a breathless female called Emily (Keogh) who is claiming that her estranged partner Henry (Sarsgaard) has abducted her.

On the face of it, a distraught young mother has been abducted by a man with a criminal record who is driving a white van, leaving the woman’s six-year-old daughter alone at home with her baby brother. Baylor instructs her to act like she’s comforting a child while talking to him, and only respond with ‘a yes or no’ to his questions. It is eventually clear that Emily’s misrepresentation have put a number of people in serious danger.

Movie remakes are risky territory but the dramatic tension is sustained until the final revelations

Gyllenhaal’s movie persona as a Hollywood leading man carries heft we don’t need in this pared back, minimalist chamber piece, but the actor is very good in the role. Gyllenhaal acquired the rights to the original Danish film in 2018, the year it was released, and became its producer and star.

Nic Pizzolatto, who created the TV crime drama True Detective, worked on the new screenplay for this remake of the highly-regarded thriller, Den Skyldige, that was originally written and directed by Gustav Moller. This year’s remake is directed by Antoine Fuqua who often helms big, manly action movies. However, this director also has some form with remakes, such as The Magnificent Seven, that was of course a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s brilliant, riotous Seven Samurai.

Remake are risky territory, especially when so closely modelled on the original. Does Gus Van Sant rue the day he decided to do a remake of Psycho, shot for shot? Bet he does, really.

Audiences can be unforgiving about straight copies, which this is, but Gyllenhaal gives a fine performance and tension is sustained until the final revelations. Another thing is timing. Since Gyllenhaal acquired the rights, the US has seen a policeman charged with murder in a very high-profile case. The Guilty makes for reflection.

First published in the Canberra Times on 9 October 2021.  Jane’s reviews are also published at Rotten Tomatoes