“Broken people save broken people.” That’s how Christina Vidal as Sgt Denise Wade explains Jake Gyllenhaal’s character Joe Baylor in Antoine Fuqua’s incredibly tense new film The Guilty. If the movie proves one thing, it’s that nothing is simple, and nothing is what it seems. Here, Fuqua teams up with Gyllenhaal in a pandemic-era story that unfolds in real time, bringing the audience on a gripping 90 minute wild ride, while the cameras stay almost exclusively in one room.
Wildfires are ripping across the landscape around LA, which only makes grounded police officer Joe Bayler’s temporary job as a 911 operator more difficult. He’s riding the phones, hopefully for one of the last times, while waiting for the disciplinary hearing happening the next AM. He’s definitely not born to the job, snapping at people calling for trivial reasons, and throwing expletives out at an entitled guy who finds himself in a compromised position. When a woman named Emily (voiced by Riley Keough) calls pretending to talk to her daughter while revealing she’s been abducted, Joe is driven to help her. A man named Henry (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard) seems to have endangered her, as well as her kids Abby and Oliver. Joe has to balance speaking to Emily, Henry, and Abby, while trying to get outside help from his Sergeant, Bill (Ethan Hawke), and partner Rick (Eli Goree). Armed with only his headset and the few contacts he can call upon to help during an overtaxed night filled with fire emergencies, he tries to work the problem. A potentially disastrous situation unfolds, and Joe discovers he has much in common with these strangers, and might share some of their best and worst characteristics.
As pandemic era films go, when contact must be as limited as possible, this is about as exciting and suspenseful as it can get. Interestingly, this movie is based on 2018’s Den Skyldige (The Guilty) from Swedish writer/director Gustav Möller, which was obviously filmed way before social distancing was a thing.
For the US version, any success is to the credit of both the script, adapted by Nic Pizzolatto of True Detective, and to Gyllenhaal’s no-holds-barred, emotional performance as Joe, in a role playing a complicated, conflicted character whose issues slowly reveal themselves over the course of the movie. Joe is aided only by the disembodied voices he speaks to, but those characters are voiced with nuance by the performers providing them. We spend the entire time with Joe, his headset, and his callers, with only occasional interruptions when he shares the screen with the operator next to him or his 911 supervisor.
It’s no surprise to Fuqua, who directed him in 2015’s Southpaw, that Gyllenhaal rises to the occasion. He begins The Guilty by showing his character is worn down by what he’ll face the next day, as witness his bloodshot eyes, the antacids he’s popping, and the persistent cough that requires an inhaler. Over the course of the story, as Joe deals with what’s happening, the actor subtly wraps character-building physical expressions like sighs, stutters, and other tells into his performance that reveal who Joe is to the audience.
All the while, Fuqua does his part to keep the audience interested through his collaborations, like with Cinematographer May Makhani, who plays with the lighting and camera angles to keep scenes from looking stagnant. The editing by Jason Ballantine moves the action along while keeping the emotions of the moment intact.
There are so many facets of police action and brutality that our country has been unwilling to examine, though it’s an urgent issue badly in need of being addressed. With The Guilty, Fuqua brings us, yet again, into one man’s experience, and asks us to look, head-on, at what’s broken.
4 out of 5 stars.