The Guilty (2021)
Jake Gyllenhaal is LAPD officer Joe Baylor, currently on desk duty handling 911 calls as an emergency services operator and stressed out about an upcoming hearing on a potential wrongful shooting and his separation from his wife and kid. He’s an abrasive, self-centered type who seems to rub everyone the wrong way, especially his fellow 911 phone jockeys, who he clearly thinks he is superior to. Everything is running smoothly on what ought to be his final call center shift when he takes a call from a woman, Emily (Riley Keough), who is obviously pretending to be calling her young daughter while she is being abducted by her ex-husband, Henry (Peter Sarsgaard). Joe decides to leave it all out on the field to help Emily, working his contacts, calling in favors from his former police partner, Rick (Eli Goree), and other contacts, all while remaining in the call center — as we do, under the direction of action specialist Antoine Fuqua, Training Day (2001).
This is, of course, a remake of the 2018 Danish film of the same name directed by Gustav Möller and starring Jakob Cedergren. The original movie is a tight, low-budget, dour affair anchored by a tense, nuanced performance from Cedergren. Gyllenhaal snapped up the remake rights immediately, obviously seeing a meaty, possibly award-worthy role for himself, and now here we are, three years later, and what was amazing coming from a first-time filmmaker on a tiny budget is pretty ordinary coming from a major film star and a director steeped in the Tony Scott school of action filmmaking.
Which is not to say The Guilty ‘21 is a bad film; it’s just underwhelming, especially by comparison — context counts. The remake is far flashier, showier affair than its inspo, even as it follows almost exactly the same plot scene for scene and sometimes line for line (this is the easiest paycheque screenwriter Nic Pizzolatto ever picked up — between this and 2016’s The Magnificent Seven this is twice he hasn’t had to hide where he’s lifting his ideas from, the lucky so-and-so). The LAPD call center is a big, airy space with massive screens showing newsfeeds of what’s going on out there in the city — specifically a lot of smoke and trauma from a raging forest fire, to throw in a little more visual and situational color. This exacerbates Joe’s asthma, meaning that sometimes — oh, the irony! — he has trouble talking! A big hurdle when your only tool is your voice.
It’s interesting to see Fuqua, a man who has never let continuity or coherency get in the way of a striking shot (for real, keep an eye on the editing in The Magnificent Seven — I reckon the continuity supervisor started day drinking pretty early on), react to the formal constraints of restricted locations and a small number of characters. In a way, it’s a throwback to his early work on Training Day, which was car-bound for a lot of its running time but still let its characters out to shoot things or be threatened by Cliff Curtis from time to time. Here he has Gyllenhaal, a couple of other physically present actors (Christina Vidal and Adrian Martinez as fellow phone cops), and an ensemble of voices on the other end of Joe’s phone, which lets him give cameos to old mates Peter Sarsgaard and Ethan Hawke, along with Bill Burr, Paul Dano, and more. Fuqua’s work is solid, but it lacks the grit-teeth, downbeat intensity of the original.
Yeah, I’m making a lot of comparisons here, but how can you not? Often when we’re talking about films, we’re picturing a vast abstract scale with, I don’t know, Citizen Kane (1941) on one end and Carrot Top’s Chairman of the Board (1988) on the other, and trying to justify the film at hand’s position somewhere in the middle (and hopefully closer to the first extreme). Here we have a direct model to compare it to, which, if nothing else, is a useful tool. We can compare performances and the way Möller trusted Cedergren to communicate his character’s interiority with micro-expressions and quiet moments. By contrast, Gyllenhaal’s character doesn’t have interiority; he has exteriority — he’s a shouty, angry dude, and we as viewers are not trusted to gauge him for ourselves. Gyllenhaal still gives good Gyllenhaal — I’m not going to be out here saying Jake’s a bad actor — but someone in the creative mic here is either not trusting him as a performer, the material as presented, or the audience as imagined, and so the precise knife to the ribs that is the original film comes out the other end of the translation process as a sledgehammer to the head.
Which is fine as in okay, not fine as in superb. The Guilty ’21 is a solid thriller that has definitely found its level as a Netflix programmer. Still, even with the constraints of the Covid-19 pandemic on film production in mind, it’s a bit weird that major industry folks are remaking what is clearly intended as a low-budget debut calling card and coming up with something which is less than the sum of its parts.
3 / 5 – Good
Reviewed by Travis Johnson