Movie Review: The Guilty (2021)

The Guilty is an American remake of a Swedish film. The film takes place in a 911 call center. Officer Joe Baylor receives a call from a woman he suspects has been abducted. The drama unfolds as Joe makes calls and feels helpless to do anything from behind a desk. The film stars Jake Gyllenhaal, Christina Vidal, Adrian Martinez and the vocal performances of Riley Keough, Peter Sarsgaard, Eli Goree, Da'Vine Joy Randolph, Christina Montoya, Beau Knapp, Paul Dano, and Ethan Hawke. The film is directed by Antoine Fuqua and written by Nic Pizzolatto. The film is playing in select theaters and streaming on Netflix.


Since I did see the original Swedish film first, I have a hard time not comparing the two. Though there are ideas that make this film distinctly American and it certainly makes for a different experience. Director Antoine Fuqua is a dynamic filmmaker, so it was going to be hard for him to localize the drama of this film entirely to a call center, or at least to keep the story contained. There is a wildfire raging on the hillside, a couple of times the drama offscreen faded in with little blurry vignettes. It's sort of all a distraction.


The action here is entirely with what we learn of the character. Nic Pizzolatto did well adapting the original script for an American audience. He infuses the frustration we have with police officers who make snap decisions in the field and the American myth of the noble lawman who has a difficult job with difficult decisions and is unimpeachably moral for doing so. It’s a delicate balance between the two and somehow Pizzolatto pulls it off and makes us believe in the emotional catharsis Joe comes to at the end.


None of it would be believable, though without the central performance of Jake Gyllenhaal. He is an actor who has shown his multifaceted talent since he was a teenager and with The Guilty, nearly completely acting without his scene partner present, he proves he can pull off a one man show. He’s angry, volatile, funny, charming, dedicated, passionate, and ultimately vulnerable. Gyllenhaal uses his physical space and his expressive face to sell every beat and tension of this film adapting perfectly with every twist and turn.


Though, it is impressive that this premise has been pulled off twice, keeping the tension and being thrilling despite the lack of a second location. Fuqua, despite his insertion of a few scenes sticks well to the idea. He and cinematographer Maz Makhani create a mood of banality in the background and tension in the foreground, keeping focus on Joe.


One of the best scenes is as Joe gets Emily back on the line after attempting to get her to stop the car with the emergency brake. The camera is in a close up of Joe’s face. It holds there as Joe attempts to calm Emily and get her to the next step. All of the light other than the computer screen fades away, the sound gets closer as it’s just Joe and Emily’s voices. He calms himself as he calms her. It’s in that moment he’s taken completely away as he realizes what actually happened and as the tension of the scene ramps up, the sound comes roaring back, throwing Joe back into his panicked, manic mode.


The Guilty is an excellent example of minimalist filmmaking. It keeps the tension high, while also giving Jake Gyllenhaal room to explore his entire range. I recommend you check this one out and definitely go find the original Swedish film for a different take on the same material.

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