Jake Gyllenhaal is one of our great actors at this point. He has proven himself over and over again in a multitude of supporting and leading roles. That he carries The Guilty –a remake of a recent, critically acclaimed Danish film of the same name– should be no surprise then, given his stature. Given the conceit that most of the other characters are only ever heard on the phone, it’s also the main thing that the movie has going for it.
As the film opens, Joe (Gyllenhaal) is a frustrated 911 operator. You see, he shouldn’t be there; he’s a detective who has been reassigned pending an investigation into his past conduct. He is calm on the phone, but rather than soothing, he is dismissive. When pressured, he is quick to anger and prone to impulsive decisions. When he takes a call from a woman who pretends to be speaking to her child as her husband drives her out of the city, Joe’s righteous fury and deep-seated desire to do right launches him into action, trying desperately to rally law enforcement agencies to intervene and save her.
It’s difficult to say exactly how the film doesn’t work without spoiling some of the end, but suffice to say that not everything about Joe is as it seems. Joe is desperate to be seen as a good man and a good cop, but he cannot get out of his own way, even at the start of the film, where he is an asshole to his coworkers quite casually and seemingly habitually. By the time the film gets around to telling you what’s actually going on and attempt to upend all your expectations, you will likely have figured out some of the more important details.
For all its flaws, though, it still has Gyllenhaal at the centre giving his all to the role. He understands the assignment and that as practically the only character on-screen, he needs to go big or go home with his performance, and he really does. He definitely dials it almost all the way to eleven a few times but manages to reign it in enough that it doesn’t ring false, and when the story requires him to be quiet and emotional, he delivers there too. It really is an excellent performance.
He has some good help, too, not only in Adrian Martinez as his coworker in the office but from the other actors who are playing the people calling 911; it’s fun to listen to those voices and figure out who you are listening to.
Ultimately, The Guilty has a compelling premise and solid lead performance, but the plot and writing leave something to be desired, which is saying something for director Antoine Fuqua and writer Nic Pizzolatto (of True Detective). The result is a fine film that I suspect many will enjoy (and I did too) but not the compelling awards-garnering drama it feels like everyone was hoping for.
The Guilty started a limited run in theatres on 24th September and will premiere on Netflix on 1st October.
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