As a wildfire rages in California, the temperature rises within a 911 dispatched inundated with calls. Fielding emergency calls that range from a married man being robbed by a prostitute to people in need of the fire department, it has been a hectic shift for demoted police officer Joe Bayler (Jake Gyllenhaal). His shift is only about to get longer when he receives a call from a woman, Emily (Riley Keough), who is cryptically announcing that she has been abducted. It is here where Antoine Fuqua’s high-concept thriller The Guilty kicks into high gear.
Placing viewers within the pressure cooker environment of the call centre, where swift responses can be the difference between life and death, Fuqua’s camera remains tight on Joe as he scrambles to locate the missing woman. Going solely off the information he is given; Joe must use his skills and contacts to fill in the missing pieces of the puzzle.
The further down the rabbit hole Joe goes, the more he becomes personally invested in ensuring Emily makes it home safely. Realizing that his colleagues are not displaying the same sense of urgency, a frantic and sweaty Joe decides to break protocol and take matters into his own hands. Clutching his asthma inhaler like a stress ball, Joe’s psychological state begins to falter as the gravity of the situation forces him to reflect on his own demons.
Considering the bulk of The Guilty takes place in the call centre, a large portion of which features Joe in a room by himself, Fuqua’s film relies heavily on Gyllenhaal’s performance to keep the audience invested in Joe’s plight. The actor holds up his end of the bargain as he skillfully navigates a wave of emotions to make Joe a complex individual. His facial expression and bulging veins convey every stress point and the rage brewing within.
Despite providing a thrilling performance, Gyllenhaal’s heavy lifting cannot raise the film out of the cement its uneven script is trapped in. While I have not watched Gustav Möller’s original 2018 film that Fuqua is remaking, one gets the sense that this version is never quite willing to wade in the complicated darkness that it flirts with. This goes for both the harrowing situation that Emily is emersed in and Joe’s questionable past as well.
As Joe’s mental state slowly descends, the script (by True Detective‘s Nic Pizzolatto) raises several interesting questions about the nature of policing; including the impact of split-second decisions officers often make without fully taking all the facts into account. However, the film rarely reflects on them with any real depth. At one point, Joe has the audacity to chastises one person for withholding key information, while remaining oblivious to the fact that his own rash judgment never affords the person the opportunity to explain themselves. The scene is quickly defused by Joe justifying his outburst as simply caring about Emily’s well-being.
This speaks to one of the central problems with The Guilty, it wants to both be a meditation on policing and mental health while simultaneously still wanting to portray officers as flawed heroes. As one of Joe’s colleagues’ notes “broken people save broken people.” Joe is clearly broken, but the extent of which Fuqua is not willing to fully explore. This makes the disgraced officer’s action at the end feel hollow rather than honorable and heroic as the film intends it to. It also does not help matters that Joe’s arrogance and deteriorating mental state leads him to repeatedly make bad decision every step of the way.
His missteps are even more glaring since the film’s single location and tight close-ups force one to study Joe’s every action with greater scrutiny. While Fuqua finds ways to incorporate brief glimpses of the outside of the van Joe envisions that Emily is trapped in, the director primarily relies on quick cuts and reports of the wildfire to visually heighten the tension. Sadly, even this is not enough to save the film from its shortcomings.
Though Gyllenhaal is outstanding in the film, The Guilty lacks the depth to make its daring concept thrilling.
The Guilty screens as a part of TIFF 2021, which runs from September 9 to 18.