By Ben Hiett
This heart-pounding psychological thriller opens with the text of John 8:32 written in journalistic print across a black screen: “And the truth shall make you free.” “The Guilty,” a remake of a Danish film of the same name, shows us the importance of having the whole truth, as far too often, we can treat our assumptions as fact until they come crashing down around us when we come to see the bigger picture.
The film opens on a city on the brink; raging wildfires have reached the border of Los Angeles, forcing thousands of civilians to evacuate as impending doom approaches. Against this backdrop of chaos, we find troubled LAPD officer Joe Baylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) on his last shift as a 911 operator.
From the outset, we see that something is weighing heavy on Joe’s psyche; he experiences frequent bouts of labored breathing for which he has been prescribed an inhaler, and a seething temper lies just underneath his disgruntled demeanor.
Still, Joe’s shift seems to be business as usual until he receives a panicked call from a woman named Emily (Riley Keough) who is being kidnapped. Realizing the woman is living on borrowed time, Joe races against the clock to get her the help she needs and bring her abductor to justice, all while LA emergency services are already overwhelmed by the chaos of an approaching natural disaster.
Although it takes place entirely within the gray walls and fluorescent atmosphere of the call center’s office, the film still commands the viewer’s attention every second thanks to the deft direction of seasoned filmmaker Antoine Fuqua. Fuqua’s characteristically gritty sensibilities are reigned in here, as essentially all the action is heard rather than seen. However, the mental images these calls trigger in our imaginations are far more chilling than anything Fuqua could have put to the screen.
What makes this movie so consistently engaging is Gyllenhaal’s anxiety-ridden, ruthlessly intense performance. Officer Baylor clearly prioritizes the ends over the means, repeatedly trying to work beyond the confines of the law to rescue Emily. His forceful, any-means-necessary approach is presented with a compelling level of ambiguity, as Gyllenhaal walks the line between determined protector and rageful intimidator. He is clearly motivated by something more than duty or compassion, leading us to wonder what is driving him to pursue this woman’s rescue so single-mindedly.
Thankfully, Fuqua’s direction and Gyllenhaal’s performance are supported by Nic Pizzolatto’s punchy screenplay that balances cinematic tension with realism. Joe’s desperate race to identify Emily’s kidnapper and piece together the truth behind her abduction is frequently interrupted by other callers with their own “emergencies.”
Though seemingly random, these interruptions work to give the larger context in which Emily’s kidnapping is occurring: a world already so overwhelmed by chaos that even her desperate pleas are often drowned out by all the noise. In addition, the annoyance and eventual callousness with which Joe reacts to these calls serve to illustrate his singular focus on Emily’s plight.
Beyond that, the movie is an exhilarating ride from start to finish, even though our only glimpses into the outside world are the unnatural orange haze looming over the horizon outside the windows and the occasional news footage of wildfires on the office’s television screens. Indeed, the film is so acutely focused on Joe’s inner turmoil and outward frustration that we jump at his outbursts of anger and our stomachs turn as he turns to increasingly questionable means to accomplish his mission.
All this angst and desperation comes to a head when Joe realizes the full truth of the situation that he assumed he understood. With this realization comes revelations about the source of Joe’s anxiety and his true motivation for pursuing this case so ardently. It all culminates with a final conversation between Joe and Emily that had me in tears, where both the characters are forced to grapple with the reality of their situations.
However, just when the movie seems to be committing to the starkness of that revealed reality, it gives us additional revelations that were most certainly included to make this film more appealing to mainstream audiences. It also tries too hard at the end to give Joe his hero moment for his work to save Emily, with a painfully on-the-nose line from his chief about “broken people” that undoes whatever impact the film is attempting to have.
As far as I know, this ending deviates somewhat from that of the original, which committed fully to some of its darker plot elements (specifically regarding both Emily’s children and Joe’s past). While the remake’s altered ending left me feeling slightly more hopeful about the whole situation, aspects of that hope felt disingenuous and a little too convenient to believe. Though the ending is somewhat saved by a final scene that gives Joe’ an actual moment of character growth, those changes nevertheless result in the muddled finale that lacks the full impact it could have had.
All that said, “The Guilty” features some of Fuqua’s most subtle directorial work, a captivating performance by Gyllenhaal, and an edge-of-your-seat, well-crafted story with more to it than you’d first expect. The ending aside, I would highly recommend this film to anyone looking for an exhilarating, engaging thriller with some unexpected twists.
“The Guilty” is now available to stream on Netflix.
Ben Hiett is an Advanced Biblical & Ministry Studies graduate student and the Arts and Entertainment Editor for Cedars. When he’s not pretending to study, he loves watching movies, looking them up on Wikipedia afterward and hanging with the boys.