The Guilty (Netflix) – movie review

Joe Baylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a cop who has been demoted for some unspecified incident and is now working night shifts at the Los Angeles Police Department’s 911 dispatch call centre fielding calls from the desperate and frightened victims of crime. This is his final shift before a court appearance in the morning that will decide on his reinstatement to field duties.

He receives a call from Emily (voiced by Riley Keough) who seems frightened and desperate and pretends to be talking to her daughter. From the information he gleans Joe believes that Emily has been kidnapped by her estranged husband Henry, who is driving her to some undisclosed location. Her two young children are still at home and are possibly at risk. Calling in favours from close contacts on the force Joe initiates a desperate hunt to find the vehicle in which she is travelling. He continues to communicate with Emily, talks to her and tries to help her remain calm and get through her ordeal.

Baylor feels that helping her will go some way to earning some form of redemption. But as the frantic search continues, he comes to learn that his original assumptions may be wrong and that there is something else going on that he doesn’t quite understand.

Produced under the auspices of streaming giant Netflix, this is a fairly faithful remake of the 2018 Danish thriller that was directed by Gustav Moller. The screenplay from Nic Pizzolatto (True Detective) follows the template of the original and retains its tense, taut and claustrophobic structure. Shot in eleven days during the height of the COVID pandemic, the dialogue driven drama unfolds in real time and the result is a tight and minimalist production that is constantly gripping. We never leave the pressure cooker environment of the call centre confines. Peter Wenham’s production design is excellent, giving the setting a more pristine, brightly lit and less grungy look than the original.

The Guilty is a character study, and comes from director Antoine Fuqua, who is better known for his hard-hitting action films (like The Equalizer), and for working on a broader canvas. While here he is working within the constraints of a single static set his approach is still quite visceral and his direction tight and without showy stylistic touches. Fuqua has also added a contemporary touch with television screens around the call centre showing news reports of the fires raging out of control around LA, which adds a more surreal visual touch and an extra air of tension to the material.

As with Denzel Washington’s character in Training Day, Gyllenhaal’s Baylor is a deeply flawed character with obvious anger management issues and this allows him to brings nuances to the character. He is impatient and often rude to callers. His performance here though is different to that of his Danish counterpart – he is angry, abrasive, tightly wound, hot tempered and frantic and doesn’t work well with others – whereas Danish star Jacob Cedergren was a bit more introspective. This is clearly Gyllenhaal’s show, and his increasingly intense performance holds our attention for the duration of this tense and suspenseful 90-minute film.

Baylor tersely interacts with a couple of other colleagues – his supervisor (played by Christina Vidal) and fellow operator Manny (Adrian Martinez) – but Gyllenhaal is on screen the entire time and his strong, sweaty and intense performance carries the film. Always reliable, Gyllenhaal previously collaborated with Fuqua on the boxing drama Southpaw. Fuqua has assembled a strong ensemble vocal cast to provide the voices on the phone and heard only through Baylor’s headset, including Keough, Peter Skarsgaard, Paul Dano, and Ethan Hawke.

Fuqua and cinematographer Maz Makhani (a veteran of shorts, TV and music videos) work in tight closeup for much of the duration, which adds to the tension and claustrophobic feel, and they clearly reveal the anguish and doubts on Baylor’s face. Audiences feel as though they are with him all the way, sweating on the uncertain outcome.

This is a solid remake that stands on its own although it lacks the gritty intensity of the original. But for those who have seen the Danish original with its unexpected twists, this Hollywood remake may lack the same emotional punch.

The Guilty is now streaming on Netflix

Greg King

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