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‘The Guilty’ answers the call

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Limitations can make for fascinating filmmaking. Whether the obstacles spring from outside forces or are self-imposed, it’s often quite interesting seeing how filmmakers overcome them.

Stories that are set in a singular space, for example – narratives that require our protagonist (and often ONLY our protagonist) to be confined to one place by circumstance. The inherent stasis to such a setting presents all manner of challenges – to the director, to the writer, to the actor(s). When those challenges are suitably and fully met, the result can be brilliant.

Alas, the new Netflix film “The Guilty” doesn’t quite get there. The pieces are certainly in place – Antoine Fuqua directed, Nick Pizzolatto penned the script and Jake Gyllenhaal is our lead – but they don’t all fit together in precisely the right way. That’s not to indicate the film is bad, by the way – it isn’t – but that it hits a few bumps along the way.

A remake of a 2018 Danish film of the same name, “The Guilty” is a story of a disgraced police officer stuck on a dispatch desk as he awaits judgment on his questionable acts. A 911 call from a woman claiming to be abducted sends him into a frenzy, pulling out all the stops as he tries to help this woman, even while the qualities and flaws that led him to this place continue to roil and bubble – and erupt.

Joe Baylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a Los Angeles police officer working as a 911 dispatcher. It’s clear very quickly that he’s here against his will, taken off the street by an undefined offense and stuck behind a desk until his situation is resolved. He’s angry and irritable, making no secrets of his belief that he is too good to be stuck here answering phones, doing work that he considers beneath him.

On this night, wildfires are encroaching on homes in the Hollywood Hills, leading to a significant uptick in the influx of calls. While dealing with the deluge of requests (and demands) for help, Joe is also ducking calls from an LA Times reporter who insists on wanting to tell his side of “the story” and dealing with the fallout of his separation from his wife, including his longing to see his daughter.

But when he gets a call from a woman named Emily (Roley Keough) who has been abducted, Joe’s instincts – good and bad – kick in. His efforts to track her lead him to reach out to an assortment of Los Angeles law enforcement entities; he engages with someone from the California Highway Patrol (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) and inadvertently winds up on the phone with his former sergeant at the LAPD (Ethan Hawke), but no one can give him the help he wants.

Joe’s desperation increases exponentially when he starts to connect with other people in Emily’s orbit. He speaks to her daughter Abby (Christiana Montoya) on the phone; her fear pushes him to pursue solutions ever harder. Joe also winds up connecting with Emily’s abductor, her ex-husband Henry (Peter Sarsgaard). This leads him to reach out to his partner Rick (Eli Goree) for off-the-radar assistance; we also start to get more of a sense of just why Joe has been stuck behind a desk.

However, as the situation plays out, it becomes clear to Joe that things are far more complicated than he believed and his assumption of understanding might well have pushed the whole mess toward a tragic end.

Making a movie like “The Guilty” work is difficult. You have to find ways to inject some degree of kineticism into the largely sedentary proceedings. Fuqua does this mostly through brief perspective flashes – moments where we get quick glimpses at the action connected to the calls Joe is taking – but he also asks a lot of Gyllenhaal. The energy has to be BIG for something like this to work; the actor in the center of the frame has to be broad without sacrificing emotional engagement.

Gyllenhaal proves mostly up to the task; his Joe Baylor is an obviously, overtly flawed man. His disdain for the work he’s being forced to do here – as well as the people with whom he’s forced to do it – is palpable. It oozes through every conversation, whether it is with a co-worker or a caller. He is rude and dismissive, the sort of guy who believes he’s the only one who knows what is important. That frantic, angry energy is idea for a situational film like this – he burns so hot that he keeps things elevated even when nothing of note is actively happening on-screen.

Fuqua takes advantage, spending much of the movie tight on Gyllenhaal’s face. The actor’s eyes do a great deal of heavy lifting, with the odd sneer or grimace thrown in to added effect. This contributes to a feeling of isolation that serves as a bit of a window onto the inner workings of this guy, someone who by all accounts has lost it all.

There are a couple of solid in-person performances – Adrian Martinez and Christina Vidal are both very good as Joe’s call center compatriots – but the real surprise comes with the voices. The people engaged in the central conflict are never seen; our sole engagement with them is through their voices over the phone. That’s where we get work from Riley Keough and Peter Sarsgaard and Ethan Hawke, all of whom are doing a wonderful job of carrying the narrative load despite having nothing more than their voices. It’s surprisingly effective, thanks to their talents and the all-in nature of Gyllenhaal’s performance.

Now, “The Guilty” has some issues. Despite the best efforts of all involved, it drags a bit, particularly in the middle of the film. We lose some of the crackle and things get a bit bogged down in a morass of button pushing, snippy phone conversations and angrily removed headsets. If you push through, however, the third act proves rewarding.

Making a movie like “The Guilty” is hard. Making it good is even harder. This trio – Fuqua, Pizzolatto and Gyllenhaal – has managed it. Again, it has its issues, but as a self-contained story (and as a showcase for Gyllenhaal), it’s a success.

[3.5 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 04 October 2021 10:07

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