THE GUILTY (TIFF 2021) – Review by Pam Grady

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eTwenty years after his breakthrough film, Training Day, Antoine Fuqua returns to the environs of the Los Angeles Police Department to deliver a very different, more subdued drama. A remake of a 2018 Danish thriller of the same name and shot under COVID protocols, it is a film where interest never flags but one that is hampered by its shaky night-in-the-life-of scenario, delivering a too shallow portrayal of the life of a troubled man.

Jake Gyllenhaal, who previously worked with Fuqua on the boxing drama Southpaw, is Joe Baylor, a cop on modified desk duty after an incident with a suspect while he was out patrolling the streets. His assignment has him answering 911 calls on the night shift at a particularly stressful moment for the city as a wildfire rages in the hills above the city, far too close to the urban core for comfort. Preoccupied with his personal problems, Baylor sneaks calls between emergencies with his estranged wife as he attempts to connect with his young daughter; Sgt. Bill Miller (Training Day star Ethan Hawke), a superior officer and friend; and others.

Then a call comes in that changes the dynamic of Joe’s evening. Emily Lighton (Riley Keough) claims she’s been kidnapped by her ex-husband, Henry Fisher (Gyllenhaal’s brother-in-law Peter Sarsgaard), and is being held in the back of the van traveling through the fire area. She is also the mother of a little girl and afraid for her fate. Joe’s instincts as a father and the cop part of him that really is geared toward protecting and serving kick in as the night becomes, for him, a race to save this mother and child. The odds are not in his favor: The CHP is stretched thin with the fire and needs more specific information than Joe can provide before the agency will dispatch a unit to search for the van. As the night wears on, and Joe works the phones, connecting again with Emily and talking to other officers and eventually Henry, the incident takes on larger implications as it pushes Joe to reevaluate his own choices.

Gyllenhaal is very good as a man used to leading with his gut (he never, for example, questions the veracity of Emily’s report) and becoming reacquainted with his better self as he works to save this stranger. But Joe’s back story is so thin that we never really know what there is to redeem in his redemption tale. Was the incident that led to his current circumstance an aberration or is he really a bad cop and what transpires during The Guilty is the true aberration?

A bigger problem for the film is that the setup is never entirely believable. The call center seems weirdly deserted for an urban 911 line. We are also presented with the scenario of a huge fire raging yet the phones barely ring. Joe has plenty of time to make his personal calls when he should have no time at all, not to make calls and not to obsess over what might be happening to Emily and her child. The Guilty is an efficient thriller that fails to thrill because it never convinces that there is anything real at stake, an ultimately fatal flaw that Gyllenhaal’s best efforts simply can’t overcome.

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Pam Grady

Pam Grady is a freelance journalist and film critic whose work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Box Office, FilmStew, SF State Magazine and other publications. Her career began at where she was an editor and staff critic. She is currently President of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle.