Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival. Netflix will release the film in select theaters on Friday, September 24, with a streaming release to follow on Friday, October 1.
It’s tempting to say only Jake Gyllenhaal could play the tricky leading role of a disgraced police officer in Antoine Fuqua’s jittery “The Guilty,” but that would be silly, because icy star Jakob Cedergren did play this role — in Gustav Moller’s 2018 original. But Cedergren never went quite so crazy, got so explosive, so positively unhinged. Star-producer Gyllenhaal, who bought the rights to Moller’s film almost right out the gate, makes the film his own.
For the most part, it works. The same can be said about the film as a whole, which has gotten a snazzy, Americanized update that will likely thrill newcomers to the story and satisfy fans of the original. If you’ve seen Moller’s “The Guilty,” well, you’ve basically seen Fuqua’s, but Gyllenhaal’s performance adds a go-for-broke turn that capitalizes on the actor’s deep emotional reserves. Nic Pizzolatto’s adaptation is not as tightly wound as the original’s (penned by Moller and Emil Nygaard Albertsen), but it does build in fresh touches that add resonance.
This version of “The Guilty” is set in Los Angeles during the height of wildfire season and, as a few quick flashes of newsreel reveal, also a period of societal unrest. Fire of all kinds is raging, and smoke chokes the air, but officer Joe Baylor (Gyllenhaal) can’t quite catch his breath: He’s got raging asthma and seriously fucked-up personal and professional lives. Forced to toil at the city’s 911 dispatch center — a punishment for reasons that slowly reveal themselves — Joe’s bad attitude is at a fever pitch. He’s pissed off at the world, and the world appears to be pissed off right back at him.
Fuqua and production designer Peter Wenham render the dispatch center as a glossy, wide-open affair packed with big screens, all the better to televise the many horrible things unfolding in real time. Joe’s job is easy enough — pick up the call, ascertain location and issue, dispatch the authorities to help, move on. Of no help is Joe’s bad attitude, especially in a gig he so desperately does not want, and he approaches most callers with obvious disdain. Some deserve it, like the whiny businessman who was clearly robbed by a sex worker and is intent on special treatment because he’s a friend of the mayor; others do not, desperately seeking help for problems they can’t solve on their own.
Enter Emily. The character is one of many in the film who only exists as a voice on the phone; Fuqua’s credits avoid attaching character names to the callers, though the film’s starry supporting cast includes Riley Keough, Peter Sarsagaard, Ethan Hawke, Eli Goree, and Da’Vine Joy Randolph. Emily is introduced just as her counterpart in Moller’s film was: Joe picks up the phone, but the sobbing woman pretends to be on a call with her distraught kid. Joe manages to push past his terrible mood and own family troubles to figure out what’s actually happening. Emily has been abducted, and she can only tell Joe so much. How can he find her?
Joe might not exactly be a cop right now, but he still has his instincts, his sources, and his bull-in-a-china-shop attitude. He works the phones, the tension rises, and secrets are revealed. While Gyllenhaal isn’t alone in this endeavor, “The Guilty” is still essentially a film about a dude on a phone. And if there’s gonna be a dude on a phone, it should be Gyllenhaal, who manages to work through a dizzying gamut of emotions and concerns and attitudes, all with an iPhone jammed against his ear and a headset atop his skull. He’s terrifying, but Gyllenhaal also sells the most important piece of it: He’s also terrified.
He should be. While Pizzolatto’s script throws a whole bunch of compelling stuff into the mix (like deeper queries about the role of the police in the modern world), many other elements rankle. (You’re telling me that, during this jam-packed late night in LA, Joe is beset by only one other call?) The film lacks some of the gritty tension of Moller’s original — or, perhaps, just feels too familiar to those who saw it — but Gyllenhaal’s explosive performance keeps it fresh and moving along in different ways.
While some sound design choices feel too crisp and obvious (there may be constant questions about where the callers are, but we always know what they’re doing — a rolling tire, an opening door), “The Guilty” finds more flash in other craft elements, like the way Joe’s computer casts him in various shades, depending on whether he’s on a call. Red: he’s on with someone, flushed and healthy. Blue: the call is gone, Gyllenhaal washes out, empty. In a life upended by bad choices, this horrible night is all Joe has, and as Gyllenhaal and Fuqua plow toward its eye-popping ending, there’s no denying it. When that line goes dead, it’s all over.
“The Guilty” premiered at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival. Netflix will release it in select theaters on Friday, September 24, with a streaming release to follow on Friday, October 1.