Review: 'The Guilty' - Police and Thieves

Kurt Loder on

"The Guilty" is a virtually note-for-note remake of the 2018 Danish film "Den skyldige" -- a Sundance hit that told the tense, compact story of a 911 police operator trying to save the life of an imperiled caller. Director Antoine Fuqua has largely preserved the muted production style utilized by Danish director Gustav Moller, and screenwriter Nic Pizzolatto has made mostly minor changes to the original script by Moller and Emil Nygaard Albertsen.

There is one very large difference between the two films. The original picture stars Danish actor Jakob Cedergren in a strikingly low-key performance as a Copenhagen cop who's been taken off street duty and parked on the 911 desk for a reason that, like other elements of the story, is at first unclear.

Fuqua's American version of the film gets a charge of Hollywood energy from Jake Gyllenhaal, whose heady performance as the cop -- called Joe Baylor here -- is deepened by the director's very close observation of his performance. Gyllenhaal is in just about every shot, and Fuqua burrows into extreme close-ups of his eyes, his lips, even the back of his head. Our concentration on these images is sharpened by the picture's minimalist environment -- the dominant colors are a glum blue and gray -- and by the fact that the story is basically confined to one room: the 911 operators' bay, with brief excursions to an adjacent office, a nearby corridor and an unexceptional restroom.

How exciting can a thriller this radically emptied-out manage to be? Fuqua deftly opens up the movie wherever possible. He has relocated the original story to Los Angeles, where the hills are alive with wildfires (a constant visual motif on the 911 pod's several live-action wall screens) and arranged a virtual outing at one point to witness a cop-cam freeway bust. And Gyllenhaal, given little more than a Ban-Lon shirt and a telephone headset to work with, is magnetic at every turn.

The story's central intention is to keep us guessing about what's really going on, which is for the most part mysterious. The setup is briskly established at the very beginning, where we learn that Joe has been put on 911 duty because he's in some kind of serious trouble with the police department (a reporter for the LA Times keeps calling about it) and has a crucial court date coming up. We also see that his wife has left him and now has exclusive custody of their little girl, on whom he dotes. He's also had to move alone into an Airbnb. So, he's pretty miserable.

The movie efficiently sketches in the wearying details of the 911 beat. One of Joe's callers is worried about a drug he's ingested. ("You shouldn't do that," Joe says, with minimal sympathy.) Another guy tries to relate the details of his robbery by a "voluptuous" woman -- without revealing that she was a young hooker he picked up. (As if Joe wouldn't guess that immediately.)


The plot clicks into gear when Joe gets a strange call from a woman (voiced by Riley Keough) who starts rattling off odd non sequiturs. He quickly realizes that she's unable to speak freely, so he starts pitching her yes-or-no questions. ("Have you been abducted?" "Do they have a weapon?") Since Joe's 911 console is loaded with tech gear, he knows immediately what this woman's name is (Emily), her cell number and where she lives. It turns out that she's traveling in a van being driven by her estranged husband, Henry (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard), who has a serious rap sheet. Before long Joe manages to dial his way to Emily's 6-year-old daughter, who's at home, untended, with her baby brother. Or is she?

It's right at this point that the movie becomes more complex. Disturbing secrets are revealed, confessions are made, darkness seems to be settling in. Emily is understandably worried. "I don't wanna die," she says.


Kurt Loder is the film critic for Reason Online. To find out more about Kurt Loder and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators website at www.creators.com.

Copyright 2021 Creators Syndicate, Inc.



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