It’s best if you know as little as possible about the plot of director Antoine Fuqua‘s “The Guilty,” an Americanized remake of the 2018 Danish film, before diving in. Those familiar with the original film on which this is based may be slightly disappointed in the (relatively) kinder, gentler direction this version takes, but viewers who avoid spoilers are in for a tense thrill ride.
Taking place over the course of a single morning in one location (a 911 dispatch call center), LAPD police officer Joe Baylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) is manning the phone lines as part of a punitive action from the force ahead of a disciplinary hearing that may get him suspended for good. The end of his shift is near when Joe gets an emergency call from a woman in great distress who may have been abducted by her ex-husband. Joe becomes obsessed with the caller, doing everything he can to save her. When things take a turn, Joe must face his own failures and the demons that lie deep inside.
It’s a dark story that tackles a lot of heavy themes, from mental illness to the behavior of policing. Joe is great at his job: he’s calm and knows exactly what to do. But as things escalate, frustrations grow and tempers flare, leading to an unimaginable deluge of distress.
The film is carried by another substantial turn from Gyllenhaal. He’s so good at portraying law enforcement characters and is tailor-made for roles like this, a man who has a slightly unpleasant intensity and swagger, yet is still one the audience can feel both sympathy and empathy towards. It’s not hard to see the mental anguish that a job like this would dish out, and it’s just as easy to understand the massive emotional toll that could swiftly damage someone’s well-being when one mistake could mean a matter of life and death for the person on the other end of the phone line.
Fuqua is adept at creating intensity and suspense, and this film ramps up the stress level almost to a breaking point. Extreme close-ups build anxiety as the audience is right there with Joe in that room, racing against the clock, desperately trying to come to the heroic aid of a woman who may be in grave danger. Some horribly tragic events occur, but we only hear them over police radios or phone calls. It’s effective, especially when the story flips your emotions and alliances in such a dramatic fashion.
The script (by “True Detective” writer Nic Pizzolatto) goes to some very dark places, but ultimately chickens out from pushing American audiences too far by backing down from one of the original film’s most disturbing plot points. That’s why going in blind will make “The Guilty” so much more potent.