When Danish filmmaker Gustav Möller’s The Guilty came out in 2018, Jake Gyllenhaal was quick to swoop the rights to an American remake for his production company ‘Nine Stories’. A taut, tense thriller evocative in formal restriction of the Dogme ‘95 movement supported by the likes of European art-house auteurs like Lars Von Trier, The Guilty took the basic concept of a dispatch operator taking a call with life-and-death stakes and through sharp writing, precise direction, and a powerful lead performance, offered up a nerve-shredder the likes of which an actor as intense as Gyllenhaal could never resist. And so he didn’t. The result, an English language version helmed by Antoine Fuqua (who previously worked with Gyllenhaal on Southpaw), is… well… a film that uses sharp writing, precise direction, and a powerful lead performance to offer up a nerve-shredding thriller.
Working from essentially the same story beat-for-beat as Möller’s original, with Californian wildfires and references to the heavy-handedness of American policing giving the plot a specific Stateside context to set this reworking apart, Fuqua’s film begins by introducing us to Joe Baylor (Gyllenhaal). Reliant on an inhaler for asthma that has been exacerbated by the fires raging outside and a storm swirling inside as a court hearing for an undisclosed incident looms, Joe has found himself taken off the city beat and lumbered in a 911 Dispatch centre. Taking calls from substance abusers, married men caught in compromising situations, felled cyclists and the like, Joe works on autopilot as he dedicates more of his time to trying to reach his daughter – his separation from her mother and his own workplace issues have driven a wedge between them that Joe just can’t seem to budge.
When a distraught young woman, Emily (Riley Keough, who impressively three-dimensionalises Emily through voice alone, matching Gyllenhaal’s intensity all the way), calls Joe under the pretence of talking to her daughter, a series of vague ‘yes or no’ questions soon make it apparent that a kidnapping has taken place. Having made contact with Emily’s daughter, who tells him how her dad – a several times convicted felon – has disappeared with her mum and mentions a knife, Joe promises the six-year-old that he’ll make sure nothing bad happens. For the next 75 minutes or so, as Joe struggles not to let his personal affairs bleed into his professional duties while fielding calls from his superiors and peers, Emily, her daughter, and the accused father, Fuqua executes a scintillating exercise in suspense, with each tidbit of information and revelation serving to thicken the plot and unspool Joe’s already fraught grip on the situation.
Though anyone familiar with Gustav Möller’s original film will know where The Guilty is headed from the get-go, Fuqua’s film – written by True Detective screenwriter Nic Pizzolatto with the same mesmeric rhythm as the HBO limited series – is a powerful exemplar of the maxim that it is the journey and not the destination that is key. From the outset, this COVID-era production is a superlative exercise in economic, concentrated storytelling. We meet Joe, we establish the set of computer systems, screens, and phone lines that will serve as his – and our – only means of receiving information, and then our watch begins.
While Gyllenhaal – as he so brilliantly and often does – hints at the multitudes being suppressed beneath Joe’s boulderous build through coughs and spurts, searching eyes betraying an initially calm and composed vocal manner, as the myriad forces beyond his control begin to turn up the heat Fuqua maximises both the importance of every resource available to Joe and also their limitations. Red lights herald incoming calls and increased danger, while the buzz and crackle of the switchboard and the sounds of callers on the end of the line create a soundscape which is incredibly striking and visceral from within such intimate confines. Add in the GPS tracking dots and the databases Joe scours as keyboards clack furiously, and whereas a lot of films are garlanded with praise for being “made for the big-screen experience”, Fuqua seems to have consciously built something tailor-made for home viewing.
With the fires burning away through the night, highway patrols and local PDs have their hands full, and – incapable of leaving the station – Joe lashes out in kind like a caged animal, so desperate to keep the promises he has made to Emily’s daughter that he bends and bends the rules until they’re as broken as he has become. It becomes increasingly apparent as the situation escalates and the night wears on that whatever Joe is preparing to face the following morning has had a keen impact on his approach to Emily and her situation, and one of the most nerve-fraying aspects of the film is watching Joe try to ostensibly put out fires with gasoline. Each decision Joe takes raises the stakes as he tries to save Emily, her daughter, and ultimately himself, and Gyllenhaal – surely the most committed craftsman working in film today – sells his personal inferno with palpable force.
“Broken people help broken people” remarks one of Joe’s colleagues late in the film, and that sums up much of what The Guilty strives to convey through its melding of police procedural, single location thriller, and laser-focussed character study. For some, The Guilty may take things a twist too far to be thoroughly satisfying; the first two acts’ meticulousness and precision give way to a third act where logic takes a leave of absence in order for the emotional weight of the film to land. But Gyllenhaal’s electrifying lead turn, Fuqua’s impressive use of a drastically limited working space, and some subtly implemented commentaries on the integrity and stability of officers working in the American police force make The Guilty a rare foreign-language film remake that expands on its source rather than diminishing or somehow degrading it.
The Guilty played as part of Toronto International Film Festival
It arrives on Netflix on 24th September