Jake Gyllenhaal in The Guilty (2021)
Following the 2015 release of Southpaw, Antoine Fuqua and Jake Gyllenhaal reunite for an American retelling of The Guilty, originally a Denmark film directed by Gustav Möller. Taking place over the course of a single morning, demoted police officer Joe Baylor (Gyllenhaal) answers calls at a 911 dispatch desk. A wildfire rages over Los Angeles as he settles into a repetitive shift. Then one call comes in from a woman in grave danger using cryptic messages. The chaotic events that transpire send Joe into a downward spiral, as he throws himself at this case and discovers nothing is as it seems. Communication is his only way out. Fuqua expertly keeps the camera close on Baylor, which heightens the tension and maintains frenetically high stakes in a contained setting. The alarming reports, the missed calls, the failed signals, all help build to thrilling sequences. Decades into his career, Fuqua continues to show how well he can craft a lean and absorbing thriller. With swift direction and a fantastic cast, The Guilty makes the most of a 90-minute runtime.
Having not seen the original film, The Guilty has plenty of surprises in store. Thanks to a contained setting, the reveals are in real-time which gives the opportunity to experience these moments along with the central character, as he frantically tries to determine next steps to take when time is of the essence. In spending this early morning with Joe Baylor, there are a lot of unpleasantries. He can be demeaning, he flies off the handle, he is snappish with his time. He is also experiencing anxiety ahead of his disciplinary court hearing. Allusions to misconduct surface in bits and pieces, gathered from Baylor’s various phone conversations with some of the people in his life. Gyllenhaal is the glue conveying a whirlwind of emotions, as we see Baylor’s head spin between personal and professional failings.
In the midst of this tornado is a 911 call from a kidnapped woman named Emily (Riley Keough). Sounding as though she’s speaking to her child, Emily cryptically reports her own abduction and Baylor catches on without missing a beat. With a ticking clock and limited information, Baylor puts everything into solving this case. From the moment she calls in, it’s as if his outside world stops and his other problems melt away. Nothing else matters except guaranteeing Emily’s safety. This dynamic between the two characters is what keeps The Guilty running. The film is an acting showcase for Jake Gyllenhaal, a consistently great actor who delivers yet another compelling performance. His exceptional work brings a pulsating energy to the story. Even more impressive is the performance by Riley Keough, stealing scenes from over the phone. Her voice work is astounding; the fear in her tone is unmistakable, and she takes the audience on an unexpected journey with an emotionally resonating undercurrent. Long after the film is over, it is her character who lingers in memory. Keough does such a great job creating a visual with her voice, imploring the power of imagination for what Emily is going through. Much of the film’s success is in the casting not just of Gyllenhaal, but the entire supporting cast. All the voice work is strong across the board, including an emotional Christiana Montoya as Emily’s daughter Abby and a great Da’Vine Joy Randolph as the CHP dispatcher Baylor often calls to help locate Emily.
The momentum of The Guilty ebbs and flows at times; but at its peak moments, which usually involve the calls shared between Baylor and Emily, it’s easy to feel glued to the screen. By staying up close and personal with Baylor, conveying his anxiety and subtly introducing people in his life (his daughter; his estranged wife), the film establishes a strong connection to him. The Guilty also delves into accountability; it’s unclear exactly why but Baylor is a guilty character, and the weight of his actions lay heavy on him throughout the film. With an important hearing coming up the following morning, he has the opportunity to hold himself accountable. For much of the film, Baylor channels this energy into Emily’s case. As though if he could make things right for her and bring her home safely, this would overshadow his previous wrongdoings. The film speaks to the incompetence of policing as well, as shown in the contrast of Baylor’s character. He is quick to follow clues and catch on to mixed signals, while allusions to his past show he’s taken part in corruption and misconduct.
The Guilty gets repetitive at times; the containment of one setting reaches tedious moments. There is also a missed opportunity not delving deeper into the subject of mental health. But Gyllenhaal’s engaging performance and the impressive supporting voice work command the screen. The cast help create a riveting environment where characters are relying on one another to figure out what decisions to make next in real-time. Fuqua’s direction keeps the stakes high and creates an energetic atmosphere with more weight than a by-the-numbers thriller.