‘The Guilty’ review: Jake Gyllenhaal dominates tightly-wound Netflix thriller

It's a short and sharp crime drama set entirely in one room

Silver linings have obviously been few and far between over the last few years, but one welcome result of the 2020 lockdown has been Hollywood’s sudden love for small-scale, stripped-back dramas. The White Lotus was rushed into production because it could all be filmed in the same Hawaiian bubble, Host was shot entirely over Zoom and Malcolm & Marie only got green-lit because no one had to leave the house. Next, then, comes The Guilty – a tense police drama shot on a single set over 11 days while the director sat quarantined in a minivan outside.

Closely adapted from the 2018 Danish thriller of the same name, director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day) and writer Nic Pizzolatto (True Detective) move the action from Copenhagen to Los Angeles, with Jake Gyllenhaal starring as a fragile 9/11 operator trying to help a kidnapped woman on the other end of a phone line. Feeling similar to the 2013 Halle Berry thriller, The Call, Fuqua manages to avoid that film’s pulpy pitfalls by keeping his story in one room – crafting a taught 90 minutes entirely out of close-ups on Gyllenhaal’s sweaty face.

It’s 2am in the middle of a hectic (but weirdly empty) emergency call centre and Joe Baylor (Gyllenhaal) is manning the switchboard. Set during the chaos of the 2020 California wildfires, the lines are buzzing with tragedies and horrors and cranks from all over the burning city. When Emily (Riley Keough) phones in and starts pretending to talk to an imaginary child, Joe almost hangs up before he realises that she’s trying to cry for help without someone else overhearing. Working out that she’s been abducted, he starts trying to piece together the information he needs to try and rescue her.

To make things worse, the bigger emergency is Joe himself. Estranged from his wife and daughter, fried from lack of sleep, he sits angrily crushing an asthma inhaler as he counts down the hours before he stands trial for police brutality. In short, Joe is the worst possible person who could have picked up Emily’s call. On the other hand, sitting right on the brink of a nervous breakdown gives Joe an obsessive edge that focuses all of his anger into trying to crack the case – phoning in old favours and trying everything he can to calm an impossible situation before he unravels completely.

Given almost every inch of the frame, Gyllenhaal is fantastic. A masterclass of under-the-surface reaction, it’s easy to see why he bought the rights to the remake back in 2018 and hard not to credit him with improving on Jakob Cedergren’s already exceptional performance. Sadly, the acting is about the only thing that gets an upgrade here. Dialling up the intensity and smoothing off the nuance, Fuqua’s remake feels slightly unnecessary – adding in a few (literally) phoned-in celebrity voice cameos (Ethan Hawke, Paul Dano, Peter Sarsgaard) and tacking on a gutless commentary on police violence that retools ACAB (political slogan All Cops Are Bastards) into a sour “some cops make mistakes” message.

The original film might be the better version of the same story, but there’s still plenty here to admire in a tightly made thriller with a welcome focus on nothing but great acting and writing. You also have to hand it to Fuqua for directing the whole thing from the back of a van in self-isolation – as lockdown hobbies go, this puts most of us to shame.

Details

  • Director: Antoine Fuqua
  • Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Riley Keough, Adrian Martinez
  • Release date: October 1 (Netflix)
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