Synopsis – A demoted police officer assigned to a call dispatch desk is conflicted when he receives an emergency phone call from a kidnapped woman.
My Take – It sure is hard to pull off a film set in a single location and keep the audiences thoroughly engaged. But anchored by a strong performer, as seen in films like Phone Booth (2002) which saw Colin Farrell trapped in a phone booth with a sniper on the line, Buried (2010) which saw Ryan Reynolds buried alive in a wooden coffin and Locke (2013) which saw Tom Hardy dealing with his entire troubles on headset behind his car’s steering wheel, the results are quite exceptional.
In this latest single-location thriller, a remake of the much acclaimed Academy Award-shortlisted 2018 Danish thriller of the same name, Jake Gyllenhaal takes the spotlight, an actor no stranger to handling of complex characters and commitment to assigned roles.
Helmed by his Southpaw (2015) director Antoine Fuqua and written by Nic Pizzolatto, of True Detective fame, like its original, the film hinges entirely on its lead’s performance as the action gets transplanted from an emergency dispatch office in Copenhagen to one in Los Angeles. And though Gyllenhaal’s performance is terrific, this English language remake doesn’t really make any real improvements on Danish director Gustav Möller’s original to warrant its existence, instead mostly feeling inferior.
While one can understand why Gyllenhaal would develop this as a project for himself, and it is definitely quite the showcase for any actor with caliber, unfortunately the screenplay treatment is just not up to the mark, demanding emotional investment without a rewarding payoff. Eventually proving that some remakes are uncalled for.
The story follows Joe Baylor (Jake Gyllenhaal), an LAPD officer, who has been stuck behind a desk at a call center following his demotion to answering 911 calls due to an ongoing investigation into an incident which took place eight months ago. Struggling under the weight of his personal and professional issues, Joe’s night takes a turn for the worse when he picks up a call from a tearful woman named Emily Lighton (Riley Keough) who may have been kidnapped by her ex-husband, Henry Fisher (Peter Sarsgaard), a man who has served time before, leaving their two kids, a six-year-old daughter and an infant, alone at home.
While the job of a dispatcher is to get all the details and relay it to the front-line officers, however Joe, disturbed by the distraught and barely coherent situation of Emily and no sense of her precise location, decides to break protocol and takes charge of the investigation himself, utilizing all his resources.
Just as in the original, here, director Fuqua finds genuine tension in the premise and even add a sense of scope beyond the call center with the help of the television monitors located throughout the building depict a constant wave of fire and first responders as the Los Angeles hillsides burn. But although the film’s first half hooks you into the mayhem of an emergency response center, the second half increasingly wavers, especially when it circles back to Joe’s personal problems, proving the film is at its best as a procedural escape room that only Baylor can solve.
Soon increasingly shocking details trickle in drop by drop, building to a climactic moment that involves Joe experiencing an emotional catharsis as the situation with Emily comes to a head. The third-act reveal proves how Joe’s biases have left him blind to the truth, and his savior complex have skewed his entire reading of the events. The film’s most powerful scene comes at the end. Joe, sitting on the floor of a toilet after having thrown up, realizes his attempt at atonement has ended with him making the same kind of rash judgment.
But herein lies the film’s conundrum: viewers are supposed to side with Joe, who strongly believes he is doing the right thing at all times. But he is not a particularly likeable character. He shouts at everyone he talks at (not to) and demands that they do what he wants, regardless of protocol. He is the quintessential “entitled” white male police officer dictating that he is doing his job, even when he is not doing what he is supposed to. And though the film is is smartly filmed and acted, Joe’s character makes it surprisingly unemotional.
Also ambiguity and subtlety are things this film just doesn’t understand. Pizzolatto’s screenplay over-explains and over-emphasizes, inserting scenes and sections that simply do not need to be there. Even at 90 minutes the film drags, and its conclusion wraps up a solid five minutes after the credits should have been rolling.
Couple this with a tacked-on social message that’s about a year too late, and the film can leave a bad taste in your mouth. Worst of all, this sub-standard version of director Gustav Möller’s film will effectively spoil plot developments and surprises that made the original film such a stunning experience.
As I mentioned above, Jake Gyllenhaal is a tremendous actor and fits the material impeccably. With the camera focused on him for almost the full 90 minutes, Gyllenhaal combines all his skills into one excruciatingly tense performance. He throws himself into the role of detective-turned-911-dispatcher Joe Baylor with so much anger, pain, and sadness that you’re forced to go through every single emotion with him.
Even if his character is often unlikable and brash, Gyllenhaal makes the film watchable purely because of his presence and poise. A sometimes unlikable lead character in a film with only that one real character would be a death nail in pretty much any other situation. This isn’t the case here because the man knows what he’s doing; he has for a long time and can comfortably lead any film.
In voice roles, Riley Keough gives an intensely emotive performance, while Peter Sarsgaard, Ethan Hawke, Paul Dano, Eli Goree, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Edi Patterson, David Castañeda, Beau Knapp and Bill Burr offer excellent support. In smaller roles, Adrian Martinez and Christina Vidal are also effective. On the whole, ‘The Guilty’ is a mostly fine, spare and compelling thriller with a great performance from Jake Gyllenhaal.
Directed – Antoine Fuqua
Rated – R
Run Time – 90 minutes