In The Guilty, a 911 responder attempts to help a distressed caller while a wildfire limits the resources available to him. But there may be more to the story than he realises.
Antoine Fuqua (director), Nic Pizzolatto (writer), Maz Makhani (cinematographer), Jason Ballantine (editor)
Jake Gyllenhaal, Ethan Hawke, Riley Keough, Christina Vidal Mitchell, Eli Goree, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, David Castañeda, Paul Dano, Peter Sarsgaard (cast)
Based on The Guilty by Gustav Möller and Emil Nygaard Albertsen
September 12, 2021 (TIFF)
Antoine Fuqua’s The Guilty, based on the Danish film from 2018, looks exactly like the kind of film you’d expect during a pandemic. Set during the night shift at an LAPD communications centre, the few visible cast members are socially distanced, monitoring the events around them on screens. Most of the plot and action takes place exclusively via phone calls — add in some Zoom meetings and this could be the plot of 2020.
The mise en scène of The Guilty could easily have felt like a gimmick, but it’s an organic part of the story. We follow Joe Baylor (Jake Gyllenhaal), a cop demoted to LAPD communications due to a disciplinary hearing. Joe clearly doesn’t like this job, which he makes abundantly clear by being as rude as possible to the distressed callers who are assigned to him. There are times when I laughed out loud because Joe’s responses were so ludicrous — but of course, I really hope this is not how emergency responders handle real calls.
It’s only when a woman, Emily (Riley Keough), discreetly calls 911 that Joe’s evening livens up. Joe soon realises that Emily is in danger and needs to speak to him. This is a case that he can work and Joe tries to get as many people involved as possible, including his former sergeant, his police officer partner, and the fire department. While this is all commendable, Joe is so insistent on working the case that he actively sabotages other people’s jobs. It’s not a good look and it doesn’t make Joe a very likable protagonist to follow.
Joe’s biggest hurdle in The Guilty, aside from the fact that he’s chained to his headphones, is that there’s a massive wildfire sweeping LA at the same time. Most law enforcement officers are involved in that — even if they want to help Emily, they can either not find her or they’re hampered by the fire and smoke. So, Joe needs to get creative if he’s to save Emily’s life.
On paper, The Guilty sounds fascinating. Most of the screentime is spent on Gyllenhaal’s face. The audience hears the voices of all these characters only when Joe interacts with them. Conceptually, it’s riveting, and it keeps us in the here and now with the protagonist. Had the film remained solely with Joe and the room he was operating in, the film would’ve been much stronger. But for some reason, there are a couple of scenes where Joe imagines an encounter that he hears, and these moments took me completely out of the film. The concept of this film is that we are stuck in this office with Joe. Why would you take us outside at all? That was a misstep.
I’m also frustrated that The Guilty is the second film that I’ve watched at TIFF 2021, after Encounter, that feeds into the stereotype that people with mental illnesses are dangerous. This has been a popular plot twist in Hollywood for far too long and I really need it to go away. People with mental illnesses demonstrate a range of actions, not just negative ones. It’s 2021, for goodness’ sake!
And that twist leads me to another issue I had with this film: it’s predictable. I understand that the story remained faithful to the original film, which is commendable. But the beats of this story are so obvious that it’s frustrating. I kept hoping for something different, but at every possible twist I knew what to expect.
But the most egregious problem with The Guilty is Joe. He just isn’t likable. Yes, the events of the film help the character realise what demons he’s fighting. He gets a solid character arc, but I still couldn’t help feeling like I needed a sonic shower after spending two hours with the man. I also couldn’t understand how Joe hadn’t been fired five times during the first 10 minutes of the film. I understand that law enforcement can be lax, but this dude is actively endangering lives by being a terrible responder.
However, Joe is a great role for Gyllenhaal, who does a brilliant job with the material. This isn’t the most physically challenging role, unlike Gyllenhaal’s previous collaboration with director Antoine Fuqua in Southpaw. But I’d say Gyllenhaal does a better job here than in Southpaw because this man can emote! The final sequences stand out for me. But they’re certainly not the only ones where Gyllenhaal captures the audience through the tone of his voice and inflection. His ability to express relatable emotions when needed looks effortless.
The voice cast in The Guilty does an admirable job. The film features several recognizable actors, but nobody sounds too much like themselves over the phone, so it isn’t distracting for audiences. You’re not going to spend your time wondering where you’ve heard that voice before, which would have been detrimental to the story, in my opinion.
In the end, The Guilty isn’t a bad film. The plot is engaging and interesting. The performances are great. It looks polished. But the story is bland, and the protagonist is awful. After the year we’ve had, it’s hard to generate sympathy for him. The message by the end of the film is one we’re used to seeing in Hollywood—it’s okay to break the rules if you get the results. That kind of message simply doesn’t sit right in today’s era. Watch the film for Gyllenhaal’s performance and the execution, but I doubt you’ll remember this film after the credits roll.