The Guilty review: a psychological thriller showcase forJake Gyllenhaal

Twenty-years ago, Antoine Fuqua directed Denzel Washington/Ethan Hawke. Training Day. That’s easy to remember, because the trailer for nearly every movie Fuqua has made since then has dropped “from the director of Training Day” as a major enticement. (Other similar successful movies of fall 2001 don’t share this distinction. “From the director of Don’t Say a Word” hasn’t become universal marketing shorthand.) It’s indicative of how closely associated Fuqua has become with cop movies, even though they only make up a small portion of his filmography. He’s done sci-fi (InfiniteBoxing pictures (Southpaw(the remake of) and a Western. The Magnificent 7This includes a variety of action films and Denzel vehicle movies.

But he’s still “the director of Training Day,” as if the last 20 years never happened. It feels right, for once. His Netflix film GuiltyIt is a surprising companion piece to his previous police stories. It’s a cop-on-the-edge thriller where the cop, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, is confined to just a couple of rooms.

In this remake of a 2018 Danish film, Los Angeles police officer Joe Baylor (Gyllenhaal) is answering 911 calls after he’s demoted. At first, using the job as punishment sounds like an insult aimed at the system’s professional operators. But after a while, Joe’s assignment starts to feel like a punishment for them, too, given his constant testiness toward his lower-key colleagues. Joe clearly wants to be away from the desk, back out on the streets. He also makes several calls while working, alluding that there is a fast approaching hearing. Joe also calls to discuss his mandatory marriage in disarray, including the disputed custody of his children.

Jake Gyllenhaal on the phone in a glass-walled 911 call center in The Guilty

Image courtesy of Netflix

A call comes in from a woman who is sobbing, and it provides a distraction to the rest of his unpleasant life. She’s in a van against her will, being driven someplace. There’s a man shouting threats in the background. The man shouting threats in the background needs to be stopped. Too many emergency workers are busy with California wildfires.

Joe is stressed by the circumstances but seems to be energized by the chance to play cop again. He makes several calls to various branches of law enforcement, while also researching the case and trying to assist the woman at his desk. Guilty This is a single location thriller. It has no establishing shots or blurred imagery. Fuqua got his start in music videos, and it’s easy to imagine a version of this movie from earlier in his career relying heavily on fast cuts, impressionistic lighting, and dramatic angles to juice the limited action. Though there’s a little of that here, Fuqua more often settles down his style in the process of sustaining the material over a 90-minute runtime. As Gyllenhaal becomes more frenzied, the movie uses fewer cuts — some of its tensest climactic scenes play out in extended static shots of the actor’s face.

Below the Skin The Guilty’s pulpy setup — not so different from the 2013 Halle Berry thriller The Call — is a more psychological human drama involving Joe’s troubled history and frazzled state of mind. As with Fuqua’s other cop thrillers, the balance of genre thrills and would-be social relevance isn’t always graceful. A lot of The GuiltyIt involves the presentation of the danger of child endangerment to the audience and then following it with an understanding of mental illness. This is partially mitigated by the genuine curiosity of Nic Pizzolatto about how to tell 2021 cop stories. Fuqua with Nic Pizzolatto (gross-pulp specialist), the True Detective writer who adapted this screenplay, clearly didn’t want to make a tin-eared throwback to earlier eras of police stories.

Jake Gyllenhaal looks strained as he stares into a mirror in Netflix’s The Guilty, almost as if he himself is possibly The Guilty

Image courtesy of Netflix

Though Fuqua’s films haven’t shied away from the misdeeds of law enforcement — recall the showy, malevolent character that won Washington his Training Day Oscar — they’re usually juxtaposed with innocent, honest police. Guilty only really has one “real” cop on screen at all; the rest are voices on the other end of the phone, or officers who aren’t irritated about their full-time work at the call center The phone-only cast is impressive: Peter Sarsgaard, Riley Keough, Ethan Hawke, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, and Paul Dano all call in, as if this were a supersized episode of Frasier.

But Gyllenhaal is the whole show, and his irritable, driven, struggling character doesn’t exactly glorify his line of work. The movie’s edge is given by Gyllenhaal’s unpleasantness, which may also give it an unearned sense gravitas. In spite of all the impressive intensity Gyllenhaal summons as the movie slowly clarifies the anguish of Joe’s full story arc, his presence feels like a shortcut, albeit an impressive one — a near-guarantee that the movie will be taken more seriously. Maybe it should be; there’s value in addressing serious problems from the confines of a gimmicky pulp thriller. As with Training DaySometimes memorable performances dominate the drama rather than serve it.

The GuiltyNetflix now has it streaming.

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