THE GUILTY (2021)
A police officer working as a 911 operator finds himself becoming obsessed with the call he took from a kidnapped woman
Hollywood remakes of European movies tend to be received sceptically in Europe, and The Guilty typifies the reasons why. It’s not a bad movie, but it’s an extremely close remake of Gustav Möller’s debut Den Skyldige (2018)—indeed, so many lines are repeated almost word-for-word that it’s difficult to understand why such a fine screenwriter as Nic Pizzolatto (True Detective) was really needed.
As a result, The Guilty is unlikely to appeal to fans of the Danish original: the huge plot twist two-thirds of the way through, which is by far the most memorable thing from Möller’s film, is repeated exactly in this US version and will inevitably carry none of its impact on those who’ve seen the original.
All this remake adds is a slightly heavier emphasis on the inner torments of the emergency-operator protagonist (Jake Gyllenhaal) and correspondingly less on the kidnapped woman who calls him. There’s also a heavier emphasis on the protagonist’s own failed relationship, which was barely touched on in Möller’s film, and a more feel-good and self-consciously “uplifting” ending.
Like its Danish counterpart, The Guilty is essentially a one-person movie—at least visually. While a handful of other characters do appear, they’re of no significance, and it could easily have been filmed with one actor playing against voices on the phone, as in Buried (2010).
Gyllenhall plays Joe, a Los Angeles detective temporarily assigned to answering 911 calls while he awaits trial for killing a man in the line of duty, with his court date the next day. He answers a call from Emily (Riley Keough), who seems to have been kidnapped by her ex-husband, so Joe keeps Emily on the line as long as he can, trying to extract information without letting her abductor know what’s going on. He tries to organise highway patrol vehicles to intercept the pair, and also gets in touch with Emily’s young daughter and discovers more about the background to the apparent kidnapping. But he’s missing one vital piece of information, which isn’t revealed until about the one-hour mark, causing Joe to see the case in an entirely new light.
Inevitably given the movie’s man-on-a-phone setup, the focus is relentlessly on Joe throughout, and Gyllenhaal keeps him believable. The film as a whole is slightly overwrought, right from its opening with an apocalyptic cityscape burning in hellish orange, a helicopter suggesting Vietnam rather than L.A, then later becoming darker and darker as Gyllenhaal’s composure crumbles under the stress of trying to manage Emily’s crisis. And just in case we don’t get the point about Joe’s mental state there’s some aural distortion too.
Still, even if he can’t quite escape the same tendency to overdo things at the most highly-strung moments of his own performance, Gyllenhaal largely convinces as a haggard, distracted, irritable man who’s fundamentally uneasy with himself and with the defence he is about to present in his shooting case. He’s not a wicked person but he’s not an easily likeable one either.
Gyllenhaal, director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day) and writer Pizzolatto quite likely consider The Guilty a character study, but despite Gyllenhaal’s best efforts the character of Joe is too one-dimensional and obvious to be interesting in himself. The parallels between Emily’s daughter and his own are similarly blatant, and also unnecessary, as the Danish film showed.
However, the events Joe is plunged into are certainly intriguing, and the mystery of Emily’s whereabouts and her ex-husband’s intentions is as troubling and compulsive to the audience as it is to Joe. On that level, The Guilty succeeds, aided by the claustrophobia of its single set—a 911 operators’ room where the few people seem dominated by the impassive technology.
There are effective moments of shock or suspense on the phone, too: most notably when other cops summoned by Joe visit Emily’s home and report finding blood, and later when Emily blurts out something quite unexpected. And while the film’s almost entirely concerned with Emily and her family, brief vignettes of other emergency calls that Joe takes are cleverly done and provide more insight into him than some of the heavier-handed touches.
Given these strengths, the impressionistic visualisation of a couple of brief scenes outside the room—as if in Joe’s imagination—was probably a bad idea; happily, they’re short and unimportant enough that they don’t do the film much harm. Music by Marcelo Zarvos is understated, as it needs to be.
Den Skyldige was Denmark’s submission for ‘Best Foreign Language Film’ at the Academy Awards. The Guilty is unlikely to get even that close, and if it weren’t for the well-known antipathy of US audiences to subtitles, one would say that there’s a vague air of pointlessness hanging over it. Why bother remaking such a recent film at all without adding any real value? That said, for those who haven’t seen the original, or can’t or won’t, The Guilty is at least a competently executed movie with a great premise and a terrific climactic upending of everything we thought we knew.
USA | 2021 | 90 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
director: Antoine Fuqua.
writer: Nic Pizzolatto (based on the film ‘Den Skyldige’, written by Gustav Möller & Emil Nygaard Albertsen).
starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Riley Keough (voice), Peter Sarsgaard (voice) & Ethan Hawke (voice).