The Guilty (2021 movie)


There's a great movie lurking somewhere in The Guilty (which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, and streams on Netflix Oct. 1). Unfortunately that film already exists in the form of the fantastically fraught 2018 Danish drama from which this manic American remake takes its name, its premise, and so few of its thrills.

Jake Gyllenhaal, his hair buzzed and eyes hollowed, is Joe Baylor, an LAPD officer demoted to 911 desk duty after some unspecified offense. In between calls from paranoid addicts and huffy pickpocketed yuppies, he fields needling queries from a local newspaper reporter and repeatedly tries to reach his own estranged wife and child. Joe looks like a guy who hasn't slept well or had a square meal in a long time, so the words of a woman on the line named Emily (Riley Keough) sound like nonsense to him at first, breathy non sequiturs about babies and being out for a drive. When he realizes she's not a voluntary passenger in the car she's in, though, his instincts click in.

Suddenly Joe is all attention, and that's when we as an audience should be too — tracking down Emily and her two young children the killer hook the story's been waiting for. The movie's claustrophobic concept, too, is cleverly designed for dread: The camera never leaves the call center. But director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day) and True Detective creator Nic Pizzolatto, who wrote the screenplay, can't stop turning the histrionics up to 11, underlining every moment and then planting a neon Post-It note on top. Gyllenhaal, too — who ricochets between righteous, furious, and outright unhinged — quickly surpasses logic, his character so extravagantly on edge you wonder whether he fistfights his own pants before he puts them on in the morning.

It makes sense then that various voices on the line, from Da'Vine Joy Randolph's overtaxed dispatcher to a gruff police sargeant portrayed by Ethan Hawke, tend to either handle him like a half-pinned grenade or wearily dismiss him. (Paul Dano, Peter Saarsgaard, and Bill Burr also appear off-screen). Even Joe's soon-to-be-ex, Jess (Gillian Zinser) sounds long past exhausted by his demands. Though a lot of Pizzolatto's script echoes the original, that character is only obliquely referred to in the 2018 version, which addresses her absence with one brief, devastating line. And that's a problem that Guilty runs into again and again: presuming its audience can't be trusted to follow the through-line of the story without being dragged there like reluctant horses.

That includes the early telegraphing of the central twist — though most disappointing, maybe, is the reversal of a major plot point it seems to commit to halfway through. Gyllenhaal and Fuqua, who made the 2016 boxing drama Southpaw together, have proved to be a solid team before; there's some room for overcooking in a narrative with a big showy canvas like that. And Guilty, for all its wild-eyed excess, does find some blunt-force propulsion for a while, particularly if you're coming to it new. But the movie seems to mistake the taut minimalism of the original for something that needs to be goosed and adrenalized, a thriller on constant defibrillator. Skip it and go directly to Denmark instead. Grade: C+

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The Guilty (2021 movie)

As demoted-cop-turned-911 dispatch operator Joe Baylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) attempts to save a caller in grave danger, he must also come to grips with his own truth.

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