Jake Gyllenhaal plays Joe, a disgraced cop who’s been busted down to dispatch duty, manning the 911 desk until he can clear his name. On his last shift before he’ll get his day in court, he takes a call that will change his life.
On the other end of the phone, Emily whispers platitudes in a wavery voice, as if to a child. Joe nearly hangs up on her before sensing something fishy. Staying on the line with her, he establishes that she’s been abducted and her captor believes she’s on the phone with her daughter. Careful to ask only yes or no questions, Joe teases out her general location (albeit in a moving white van), her status, and a working theory of what’s going on. He notifies California Highway Patrol, but they’re busy handling wildfire calls. Emily is choking with fear, begging to be saved, and some part of Joe responds. He’ll break protocol to go above and beyond for her, risking his job and his hearing tomorrow to bring Emily home safely, where 6 year old daughter Abby and baby Oliver wait – alone.
You might argue about what movie made Tom Hardy a star, but the movie that confirmed his talent as an actor was undoubtedly Locke, a film that only stars him, just a man driving a car alone at night, talking through a crisis on the phone. Jake Gyllenhaal does the same here. It’s just him and his headset, obsessed with solving this case without even working it, perhaps unconsciously looking for redemption, definitely influenced by longing for his own young daughter and estranged wife. Every call that a 911 operator picks up has the potential to be this call. It’s high-stakes, high-stress, high drama. Joe decides to involve himself, to over-involve himself, to save this woman without leaving his desk.
The Guilty is Gyllenhaal’s best role since Nightcrawler, and it has to be in order to work. It’s just him: the sweat on his brow, his nervous fiddling with an inhaler, his increasing frustration with everything and everyone unrelated to this case.
We’re experiencing this call nearly in real time alongside him; the tension is very real, but Joe’s got to handle this with one hand tied behind his back. He’s technically done his shift. He’s definitely out of bounds. He’s calling in favours he can’t afford. And though he maintains an outward calm, his anxiety is manifested in shallow breaths and a refusal to retreat. We stay with him, often right up in his face, chasing bad guys and demons. My heart was in my throat. I don’t think I let out a single breath until the end of this tidy 90 minute movie.
We were about 20 minutes into the film when I suddenly realized that I’d seen it before, an admission that surprised Sean considering we were watching its world premiere. In fact, it’s a remake of a Danish movie also called The Guilty, a movie I quite enjoyed, according to my review. I enjoyed the remake just as much, if not more. Director Antoine Fuqua knows how to how to build tension, how to hold tension, how to release it for just a blink before taking it up again, only harder, longer, more intense. As you can imagine, it doesn’t relent during the film’s entire runtime, and both we the audience, and Joe the weary dispatcher, begin to come undone. Joe, at first overconfident and a little arrogant, begins to fray as this case goes through its twists and turns, confronting him with his own flawed ego.
Sean was less enamored with the film, frustrated by its limitations, by action never seen. Your appreciation of this film will vary according to your tolerance for incredible acting and taut, tense story-telling. Sean would have preferred car chases and explosions. Maybe boobs. Well, definitely boobs. Always boobs. I, however, was totally hypnotized by Gyllenhaal’s performance, dizzied by Fuqua’s directing, which makes clear how personal Joe has come to take this case. Fuqua’s material is normally much more action-oriented, but for The Guilty he keeps it intimate, while still finding the suspense, the edge-of-your-seat stuff that keeps us riveted, sick with anticipation, imaginations fueled by adrenaline. Gyllenhaal’s performance is informed by terrific voicework by Ethan Hawke, Riley Keough, Peter Sarsgaard, Bill Burr, Paul Dano, and little Vivien Lyra Blair, who is formidable. But on set, Gyllenhaal was alone, tethered by his headset, giving essentially an 11-day monologue. On screen it translates to an instant connection, an immediacy fostered by savvy editing, a film that drags you in and won’t spit you out until all the cards are on the table.
The Guilty is an official selection of the Toronto International Film Festival.
It will have a limited theatrical run on September 24, 2021, prior to streaming on Netflix on October 1.