Run Time: 1 hour 30 minutes
Stars: Jake Gyllenhaal, Riley Keough, Peter Sarsgaard, Christina Vidal
Writer: Nic Pizzolatto
Director: Antoine Fuqua
In Theaters and on Netflix
I’m a little worried about Jake Gyllenhaal. I don’t think he knows how to blink.
Remember when he played a psychopathic news cameraman in Nightcrawler? Didn’t blink. And when he was a haunted art critic in Velvet Buzzsaw? Again, virtually blinkless.
Now, here he is in The Guilty, starring as a 911 operator enduring the worst night of his life. He stares transfixed at a computer screen, alternately shouting warnings and whispering confidences to desperate people, sweat beading on his face, veins bulging in his forehead.
And the guy doesn’t blink.
Then again, neither do we as Gyllenhaal and his director, Antoine Fuqua, unspool a taut, twisting tale of madness and misdirection. The stark, dialogue-heavy script of The Guilty could easily have been compelling as a radio drama, but that would mean missing Gyllenhaal’s iron-clad performance in this nerve-wracking psychological thriller.
He’s in virtually every frame as Joe Baylor, a street cop who’s stuck on Emergency Dispatch duty pending trial for police brutality. In fact, the court date that is going to define Joe’s future — which may include removal from the force and even jail time — is scheduled for the very next morning. On top of that, he’s pining for an estranged wife and beloved young son, both of whom seem to have one-way tickets out of his life.
In other words, professionally and personally, Joe is a cornered animal — and indeed, Gyllenhaal is almost feral here: mouth taut, eyes darting like ricocheting bullets as a life-and-death scenario unravels over the air, maddeningly out of his reach.
We find Joe on duty, just wanting to get this 911 graveyard shift over with. He handles the usual array of calls, from serious to silly — until one alert comes through that makes his blood run cold: A woman (Riley Keough), speaking in couched phrases so as not to tip off the person with her that she’s called the cops, makes abundantly clear she’s been kidnapped.
And so begins a long night of Joe scrounging for fragments of information that might help him find the woman, identify her abductor, and perhaps save her life. He directs cop buddies to break down doors and pull over suspicious vans on the freeway. And he has to do it all from his seat in a 911 command center.
One can guess the film’s conceit — a man alone in a room having desperate conversations with unseen callers — arose out of necessity in the COVID-19 filmmaking era. But art often arises from the bonds of limitation, and The Guilty is a case in point. Besides the visual riches of Gyllenhaal’s performance — the guy seems to act with not just those compelling eyes, but his entire body — the film showcases some truly spectacular voice acting from stars like Ethan Hawke, Paul Dano, and Peter Sarsgaard.
The Guilty is pretty much a shot-for-shot remake of a 2018 Danish film of the same name. Director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day and The Equalizer) ordinarily loves to expand his action films into sprawling set pieces — but here he wisely sticks to the less-is-more prototype. This may well be the first film Fuqua’s made in which the hero does not walk slowly away from an exploding car or building, but Gyllenhaal provides all the fireworks he needs.
Fuqua, who seldom brings a film in under two hours, also deserves credit for moving The Guilty along in 90 crisp minutes. Each one of those minutes brings its own reward. Just don’t blink.
Featured image: Jake Gyllenhaal in The Guilty (Netflix)
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