Director: Antoine Fuqua
Writer: Nic Pizzolatto
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Riley Keough, Peter Sarsgaard, Christina Vidal
Cinematographer: Maz Makhani
Editor: Jason Ballantine
Streaming on: Netflix
For an intimate drama confined mostly to a single room, the beginning of The Guilty establishes a disaster of epic, Biblical proportions. It even opens with a quote from the Gospel of John. Wildfires rage across California in a shot that evokes the end times. In voiceover, increasingly panicked complaints of fires, shootings and requests for evacuation pour in. The 911 dispatchers at the other end of the line assume the significance of a God overwhelmed by the unceasing rush of prayers.
If there is a God, however, he's an unsympathetic one. Joe Baylor (Jake Gyllenhaal), an officer recently demoted to the role of 911 operator, answers calls with a clinical detachment bordering on indifference. His experience affords him the ability to rapidly judge situations and their threat levels, but it also makes him judgmental, of his callers and their choices. He doesn't sympathise with a drug addict afraid of overdosing on Speed or a man robbed by the prostitute he hired, but admonishes them for being the cause of their own problems. God helps those who help themselves.
In contrast to how Joe must keep his callers talking so he can collect valuable information about their circumstances, director Antoine Fuqua effectively conveys information about him through images, such as the inhaler in his hand, the mental health resources poster he lingers at, the photo of a young girl set as his phone wallpaper. The last one provides clues as to why Joe's emotions begin to override his sense of logic when a woman being kidnapped (Riley Keough) calls him, pretending to speak to her young daughter so that her abductor won't catch on. He coaches her through the charade of comforting her young child while being unable to reach out to his own. Their tense conversations only benefit from the lack of accompanying visuals as any horrors imagined are more effective than horrors depicted. The camera stays firmly on Gyllenhaal's face as he agonises, seethes and sweats his way through the case, with only Keough's fragile, childlike voice in his ear providing context. The result is a sleek thriller, though there are stretches during which the film's 91-minute-runtime feels much longer, Joe's impatience easy to identify with.
As it progresses, The Guilty — a remake of the 2018 Danish film of the same name — can't decide if it wants to belong to the 'copaganda' genre or subvert it. Joe's openly dismissive attitude paints a larger picture about the reported general unhelpfulness of American police. At one point, he tells the cops to take their time arriving at a crime scene so an entitled caller can sweat a little. At another, he hurls expletives at a frustrated civilian. Several times over, his rage hurts, rather than helps. Still, his spiel about the role of cops as protectors — an idea that recurs towards the end — is a message so on the nose, it'll make you roll your eyes.
To its credit, the film does poke holes in the renegade cop trope, writing its police as flawed, fallible men trying to do their jobs rather than as men who know they're the heroes of a cop movie. Joe's order to "kick (a suspect's) fucking doors in" isn't met with immediate compliance and cheers but a sobering reality check — without a warrant, there's not much that can be done. The few personal calls that he takes or makes affect a role reversal from his professional ones, with him either being interrogated or forced to interrogate his own past behaviour, both as a cop and as a husband and father. A twist forces him to confront the realisation that he might not be as all-knowing as he once assumed. While he might initially be positioned as a God, by the end, the nature of his mistakes and even his name Joe, as in 'average Joe', point to him being as human as the rest of us.