Over the years, Jake Gyllenhaal has performed all kinds of roles, but he is incredibly adept at playing the role of a troubled man, struggling with himself. Be it Nightcrawler or Enemy or Nocturnal Animals, he has shown time and again how powerfully he is able to convey the feeling of a breakdown building up. The slow boiling experience of events and circumstances preying on your mind, and leading you into an explosive expression of the emotions can be seen in his eyes and body language. The iconic scene from Nightcrawler where he breaks the mirror is a classic example of how well he portrays ‘unhinged-ness’. The Guilty is, however, quite different.
Joe Baylor from The Guilty falls among Gyllenhaal’s iconic roles but has one major difference. His guilt, as the movie’s name suggests. Right from the beginning, he is shown as a short-tempered and troubled man who is not really amicable at all. His job as a 911 operator is emotionally demanding, of course, but that isn’t a sensible explanation for his apparently erratic and neurotic behaviour. He doesn’t seem very dedicated to this job either which is particularly unsettling to see. However, Jake’s brilliant performance conveys that he is quite bothered about something personal that threatens to push him over the brink at any moment.
When he realises that the call he assumed to be a drunk call is actually an abduction, we see a shift in his dedication toward the task at hand. It is clear that there’s something personal about the assignment that he is projecting, thus fuelling his urge to help the woman on call. The situation is extremely difficult to process and treat objectively, his being a parent to a daughter doesn’t help. He slowly starts unravelling, shouting unnecessarily and swearing at people who are trying their best to help him. Gyllenhaal’s comfort with portraying this kind of psyche makes the character’s discomfort tangible.
As the story develops, it becomes clearer why he is personally interested in saving this woman, apart from it being his duty. He seems to be harbouring guilt about whatever has necessitated his court appearance set for the next day, and also possibly estranged him from his daughter. The gradual buildup makes the story intimate to the viewer. It has the ability to affect you deeply because it lets the tension settle into the mind, before introducing a new revelation, and before you know it, you’re as unsettled as Joe Baylor himself. The pacing is truly amazing; the story’s ability to hold attention even when practically nothing is happening, just because of what might happen, makes it a prime example of suspense storytelling.
There’s a certain question of morality too, as the dark backstory of the abduction polarizes your opinion about the people involved. Joe Baylor has picked sides, and so have you. Baylor even goes so far as to make personal calls to try and help the victim, a point where you know that he has lost all objectivity. This level of involvement further establishes his own guilt about his past. He even contacts acquaintances and calls in personal favours, despite clear directions from those involved that these are unnecessary. The story has also developed quite well up to this point, before a quiet moment comes in, to create the emotional hook.
There’s a soft, heartwarming conversation between Joe and the abducted person, investing you emotionally. These unexpected slow and warm couple of minutes are what immortalized the storytelling for me. You still feel uneasy, but you’re also personally involved in the stakes now. And then, the bomb drops. You won’t see the plot twist coming, that’s for sure. It’s perfectly timed and changes everything. Just when you’re sure about the stakes, you start questioning the very basis of your judgement and this is how the film effectively blurs the lines of morality.
With near-perfect use of close-up shots, the film’s visuals end up amplifying the anxiety you experience. The film is completely set on a single floor of a building, with most of its tension made palpable through phone conversations. The structure of the narrative, the pace of the storytelling, the intricacy of the dialogue and the personability of the characters make for an emotional ride, especially for the last 30 minutes — most of which could be spent with tears in your eyes. The ending is rather poignant because of the simultaneously hopeful but disturbed aftertaste you’re left with. It’s a beautifully constructed thriller that achieves a lot more than just thrilling you.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.