A film review by Craig J. Koban October 6, 2021

Rank: #17

THE GUILTY jjj
½ 

2021, R, 90 mins.

Jake Gyllenhaal as Joe Bayler  /  Riley Keough as (voice)  /  Ethan Hawke as (voice)  /  Peter Sarsgaard as (voice)  /  Paul Dano as (voice)  /  Bill Burr as (voice)  /  Gillian Zinser as Jess (voice)  /  Vivien Lyra Blair as Abby (voice)  /  Da'Vine Joy Randolph

Directed by Antoine Fuqua  /  Written by Nic Pizzolatto, based on the screenplay by Gustav Möller and Emil

ORIGINAL FILM

After this year's truly terrible sci-fi thriller INFINITE, director Antoine Fuqua has returned to solid form with the intensely gripping THE GUILTY (a remake of the 2018 Danish film of the same name), and it's easily the filmmaker's finest and most assured work in many a moon.  

The film's minimalist premise is deceptively simple: A disgraced and demoted LAPD officer works a night shift as a 911 operator...and hell breaks loose (literally) in the Hollywood Hills and with one life and death emergency situation in particular, which puts added strain on his already deeply troubled soul.  It's a real testament to Fuqua's skill and focus as a director to make this essentially one location Netflix produced film work as well as it does, giving it just enough visual panache so that it doesn't come off dryly as a play being filmed, but without going aesthetically overboard to distracting levels.  That, and his SOUTHPAW partner in crime Jake Gyllenhaal once again leads the charge and proves here - as he's done countless times in the past - why he might be the best working actor to have never won an Oscar. 

I won't devolve into whether or not I think THE GUILTY is a solid remake (the original remains unseen by me), but instead I'll focus on how well it's staged as a standalone feature (I do know, though, that the Danish import was also a small-scale, single environment suspense thriller set within the tough world of emergency services).  Gyllenhaal plays Joe Baylor, and right from the get-go you know that this guy's a few fries short of a Happy Meal.  He works a thankless job as a graveyard shift 911 operator in Los Angeles, during which time massive fires burn in the surrounding regions (they're constantly shown on his office's big screens, and the stress of that is probably what sets his asthma off).  He seems constantly edgy and ill and ease at his job, despite being a technical maestro at his convoluted computer system.  It's slowly revealed that he's an LAPD officer that's knee deep in a controversy that could not only cost him his career, but also might net him some jail time (the screenplay by Nic Pizzolatto is wise not to reveal the particulars of his indiscretions too early, allowing audience members to piece it together scene by scene while he's on the job).  As an added gut punch, his separated wife in Jess (played in many of the film's fantastic off-screen/voice only performances by Gillian Zinser) wants him out of her life and restricts his access to their son.  Plus, Joe is getting constantly bombarded with personal calls from nosey reporters about his case and many of his "emergency calls" that he receives are so pettily mundane that they constantly test his patience and already wobbly sanity. 

So, yeah, this dude is a ticking time bomb waiting to go off.   

 

 

He gets one fateful emergency call that's anything but mundane.  A deeply distressed woman named Emily (a sensational Riley Keough, completely off screen here) calls in and it's clear that she's in immediate danger.  She claims to Joe that she's been kidnapped by her psychotic husband in Henry (Peter Sarsgaard) and locked up in their family van, with her spouse leaving their two very young children home alone.  Realizing that this is not a prank call, Joe goes into crisis mode and begins to use every meticulous bit of police and call center training to find out as much as he can about the couple, their children, the vehicle they're in, and where the vehicle is at the moment.  This is inordinately difficult, seeing as Emily can't relay anything specific to Joe on the phone in fear of tipping off her deranged husband, meaning that Joe has to be razor sharp and quick witted in asking her plain yes and no questions about her predicament.  Joe even manages to take multiple calls from her frightened six-year-old daughter, who rightfully has difficulty processing what's happening.  Joe soon becomes obsessed with stopping this husband's multiple crimes and ensuring the safety of the Emily and her children, even if it means coercing his police contacts, colleagues, and anyone else he can to use less than legal means of stopping this madman. 

Fuqua seems to intuitively understand that the key to THE GUILTY is in its portrayal of the claustrophobic confines of Joe's call center HQ and how that has a destabilizing effect on him.  As a former cop, Joe felt best in the field and constantly on the go, but now he's been ordered to stay put and answer distress calls, which fuels his unease and rage.  Outside of a few minor set pieces staged outside, the majority of THE GUILTY's camera never once leaves the call center (and never once shows any of the people that Joe is speaking to over the phone).  This is what makes the whole situation for Joe so nerve-wracking and, at times, difficult to watch.  We constantly have to witness this beleaguered man's response to multiple emergencies that come his way, and most of his anger induced frustration is in knowing that he can't physically lend a hand.  And when other call center colleagues and others within the LAPD want to play completely by the book it sets him off even further.  The lion's share of the terror in THE GUILTY is in Joe being placed within a pressure cooker of a situation that may lead to a woman and her kids dying...and the only thing he has at his disposal are phones and a computer.  Most of the Hitchcockian intensity presented here is primarily through conversations and the fear of the unknown to come.  Joe tries as he can to dig up any Intel he can from Emily and her kids, and all while having to combat LAPD friends that don't want to go the extra mile for him because of his legal woes.  In many ways, THE GUILTY unravels as both a psychological horror thriller and a mystery yarn. 

And, as mentioned, Fuqua's overall technique here is quite sound and the central premise here forces him to play all the scenes on a much more intimate and localized scale.  Not enough style and THE GUILTY would have been a slog to sit through, but too much hammered over our heads and viewers would want to check out too early.  We get important glimpses into the technology that goes into these 911 centers, but the more crucial focal point for Fuqua is in the character dynamics, especially for those between the seen and unseen over phone conversations.  At a just right 90ish minutes, THE GUILTY is superbly edited, spare, and exemplary in its efficiency.  So many movies of its ilk protract their running times on to watch checking levels, but Fuqua never lets his film overstay its welcome.  Everything is handled so fluidly that you can even forgive some of the film's more illogical plot holes (the manner, for example, that Joe hot headedly snaps at nearly every caller would easily get him fired in any real world scenario, not to mention that, when modestly scrutinized, it's not entirely credible that a LAPD officer that could be going to prison for unspecified reasons would ever be given a 911 desk job).   

So, to be fair, THE GUILTY doesn't always pass the logic smell test, but as an exercise in feverishly tense storytelling and nail biting intrigue, Fuqua's film is a triumphant genre exercise through and through.  And this thriller is too bloody well acted to be dismissed, with Gyllenhaal front and center through nearly ever single second of the film.  This is a bravura showcase reel for his abilities, and watching the actor give us a portal into Joe's combustible personality and the multiple pains he suffers makes THE GUILTY so utterly intoxicating.  Joe is not a squeaky clean good guy in the story, and Gyllenhaal's performance has to simultaneously portray this man as a toxically antisocial and verbally abrasive miscreant and someone that's willing to do everything and anything (lawful or not) to save a family.  It's another dependably tour de force piece of acting from the always committed actor, but kudos needs to be given to his unseen co-stars, like a stellar Keough and Sarsgaard as a husband/wife in nightmare scenario that always makes their characters come authentically alive despite having no physical screen time (even Fuqua's old TRAINING DAY star in Ethan Hawke shows up as a police sergeant buddy of Joe's that wants to help him, but understands that he's a hopeless loose cannon that's bad news for just about everyone around him).  

If you're willing to turn a blind eye to some of the film's implausible story mechanizations, then you'll probably find THE GUILTY to be a superiorly well oiled Bruised Forearm thriller.  You know, the kind that the late Roger Ebert coined: "A movie where you and your date grab each other's arm every four minutes and you walk out black and blue and grinning from ear to ear."

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