It’s clearly patronizing to give a filmmaker like Antoine Fuqua notes, but given the disaster of his last film — “Infinite,” also a 2021 movie — and the triumph of his latest release, maybe a little encouragement can’t hurt. “The Guilty” is an intense, single-setting thriller, the polar opposite of the film he released three months prior. Maybe this means Fuqua is better off without his toys and CGI and should reunite with Jake Gyllenhaal as often as possible.
Fuqua’s minimalist remake of the 2018 Danish thriller of the same name is his best film since “Training Day,” and Gyllenhaal delivers an absolute beast of a performance. Of course, Fuqua’s best film of the past decade is “Southpaw,” another drama that also features Jake Gyllenhaal in the leading role. The through-line of all three films is a lack of emphasis on spectacle and scale and a premium placed on emotion and humanity, skills that Fuqua clearly has when he chooses to activate them.
“The Guilty” is set over the course of one long day; the addition of “True Detective” screenwriter Nic Pizzolatto clearly benefits the project, even though the film does not veer too far from the original story. Gyllenhaal plays Joe Baylor, a troubled police officer grappling with a lot of personal demons and problems. Baylor is a 911 dispatch call operator, and while it’s never explicitly stated — if the original is anything to go by — he’s a detective who’s been demoted while internal affairs investigate him for a matter not yet revealed but clearly weighing heavily on him.
Described as a belligerent “shit magnet” at one point, Baylor seems to have a knack for being his own worst enemy and making difficult situations even more exasperating. An intense personality — read: asshole — Baylor is condescending to callers, not all that empathetic, and agitated by his dispatch demotion. But as the movie unfolds, and he takes on more banal and not-really-emergency calls, details of his backstory begin to slowly emerge. We understand him to be an angry man, not really in control of his emotions, whose estrangement from his wife and daughter only adds to his growing distress. This is where this ‘Guilty’ seems to differentiate from the original the most: Baylor’s emotional complexity and the weight of the baggage heaved on him by Pizzolatto’s obstacles. The way all these character details slowly unfurl only makes this film even more captivating.
However, the call center shift, aggravating and thankless, takes a turn for the desperate when Baylor takes a call from Emily (Riley Keough), a distraught and confused mother. Disoriented and not making total sense, eventually Baylor pieces together that she’s been kidnapped by her husband, Henry (Paul Dano). More troubling details emerge too, but Fuqua’s film — like the original — never leaves the call center. The entire film relies on Gyllenhaal’s upset and alarmed face, his concerns, and his reactions to various callers (additional cast members like Ethan Hawke, Peter Saarsgard, and Bill Burr are also only ever heard from their disembodied voices). 95% of “The Guilty” is Gyllenhaal on the phone taking emergency calls, trying to multi-task problem solve, or talk down people from emotional cliffs. The whole movie essentially takes place in three scenes, a bathroom (extremely brief), the call center, and a private room to take calls.
Through this work, further character details are illuminated: Baylor is really good at his job, actually has deep empathy for victims, but suffers from obsessive control issues. He is arrogant and feels like he — and he only he — can fix all situations, and his problems with authority lead him to break the rules and cut corners in the name of saving lives. While he’s pestered by reporters trying to get “his side of the story” for an impending trial that’s placing massive pressure on the policeman, the audience doesn’t learn what Baylor’s transgressions are until the end. No matter. Pizzolatto, Fuqua, and Gyllenhaal provide more than enough character detail to easily convince you a reckless hothead like Baylor would easily run into problems with his superiors and the by-the-book-protocols he can never seem to follow.
Fuqua’s known for his grand visuals such as speed-ramping and slow motion; here he’s locked into tense, claustrophobic compositions that exacerbate Gyllenhaal’s growing unease and desperation as he tries to save Emily and walk her through various, wild, and rash methods of escape. There’s a great twist to it all as well, which only emphasizes how Baylor’s competence, conceitedness, and sense of self-importance are clearly his Achilles heel. What makes “The Guilty” good is the way it tacitly communicates so much about the character without ever having to speak his issues out loud (“broken people save broken people” is the only clunky line in the movie; Pizzolatto just can’t resist spelling out the theme of Baylor’s inner conflict).
Much of the entire cast and crew are doing deceptively challenging work. Keough’s disturbed and dazed Emily does outstanding work in her ghostly voice performance, which will likely never receive the recognition it deserves. The emotionally escalating conversations that Pizzolatto crafts as the movie builds are terrific and affecting, and Fuqua’s restraint and discipline to hold the line and wait for minute moments of anxiety to boil are extremely admirable.
Yet, for all the supporting cast members and crew doing superb work, the MVP is clearly Gyllenhaal — coiled, calculated, and subtly calibrated in his slow build of dread, angst, irritation, despair, and all-out explosive volatility when situations go south. Baylor starts out patronizing and apathetic at the beginning of his shift, but as he gets completely absorbed by Emily’s safety and the precarious danger she’s in — not to mention the subplot with her kids and the other officers he commandeers — he becomes a ghost-white, sweaty mess. Baylor is traumatized by the all-night crisis intervention bender he’s been on of attempting to manage, deescalate, and diffuse a situation he’s often made worse. Fittingly then, the almost unhinged performance is simply bruising and will often leave you, like the movie, tightly wound and breathless.
If there’s a knock to be had on “The Guilty,” it’s the same one found on “Southpaw,” but not as pronounced. The ascending tension and acceleration of terror get a little melodramatic and overwrought in the last act, and arguably this 90-minute thriller could’ve been a leaner 80 minutes or less. Still, Jake Gyllenhaal is there to lead you through every pitch shift in harrowing tone, and watching him rise from 85% and then to 86% anguish, up and up, and so on, is to watch a masterful orchestration in intensification.
Then there’s the case of “The Guilty,” who shall be saved, absolved, and or punished. Fuqua’s film doesn’t forget the moral end of the movie either, a nice crescendo of salvation, redemption, and accountability that puts a nice ring on this terrific little championship victory of control, taut understatement, and brutally exhausted emotional endurance. No more notes. [B+]