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The Guilty

Released 2021. Director: Antoine Fuqua

THE GUILTY CENTRES ON ONE MAN AS HE ENDURES several intense hours trying to do what is right in his mind, even if it means breaking strict protocol. It’s about the burden of guilt that consumes a person from within and drives him towards redemption. It’s also about how easily we sometimes assign judgememt calls on whether someone is innocent or guilty based solely on superficial details.

Jake Gyllenhall’s character is named Joe Baylor, a 911 emergency operator after being demoted to desk duties at LAPD. Joe is visibly troubled and doesn’t even try to hide it. He’s prickly, has problems following orders and by his own admission, an arsehole to his co-workers. Something is agitating Joe; we don’t yet know what, but he’s harassed by a reporter who keeps calling him to “tell your side of the story”.

The entire movie takes place inside the emergency call centre, the camera rarely leaving Joe for one second. Outside, wildfires are burning across the greater Los Angeles area and rescue services are stretched to the limits. A 911 call comes in from a quietly distressed woman, sobbing and not always coherent. Joe makes out from the number and GPS tracking the caller’s name is Emily travelling on I-10 heading east. With a few probing questions Joe gathers she’s been kidnapped by an armed abductor in a white van.

Joe relays the information to highway patrol and, not in a way that would win any friends, demands that officers be sent to track down the vehicle. Joe goes further, calling Emily’s home and speaks to her frightened 6-year-old daughter Abby, who gives Joe her dad Henry’s number, leading Joe to Henry’s police record showing a history of assault. There’s no doubt in Joe’s mind what’s happened as he calls up cop mates to check in on Abby and her baby brother Oliver. As Joe stays on the line, he hears a grisly discovery before the line is cut.

Despite all the action taking place off-screen, the movie is charged and tense from start to finish. A simple premise masterfully executed by director Antoine Fuqua, who knows how to wring every bit of anxiety and urgency out of a man talking into his headset in front of a bank of computer screens in a dark room.

For this he has Jake Gyllenhaal to thank. Those intense dark eyes of his are two hypnotic orbs that suck you into his forceful personal mission. It’s an impressive and layered performance. The movie is energetic, and the lead actor is a walking weapon fully loaded. Joe’s body language is tightly wound with so much stress and anger he’d have burst out of his tight shirt if he was the Hulk.

Already wrecked by conscience and greatly unsettled by an impending court hearing on his shooting death of a 19-year-old boy, Joe turns the emergency call into his personal crusade to not only rescue a kidnapped victim, but also her defenceless children and bring a violent husband to justice, and in so doing, possibly redeem himself somewhat.

Then the truth of the situation dawns on Joe and it’s a shattering realisation that his intervention has been based on false assumptions. The emotional peak culminates in the last 20 minutes leading to a powerful moment for Joe in a scene that’s a gripping showcase for this actor’s ability to deliver heavy scenes with nothing but a phone.

Lending dramatic support to build an unfolding crisis in our imagination are Riley Keough as Emily, Peter Sarsgaard as Henry and Christiana Montoya as Abby, heard but never seen, acting only with their voices; and in minor roles also unseen, Paul Dano and Ethan Hawke.

This is Antoine Fuqua’s most accomplished movie by a long stretch. From his catalogue of testosterone-fuelled action thrillers since Training Day (2001, starring Denzel Washington), this one is just as muscular and in a sense, action-packed with added layers of palpable emotions.

The Guilty is a remake of the Danish movie Den Skyldige from 2018. I have not seen the original, so I cannot comment on comparisons. Judging on its own merit, The Guilty is an engrossing 91 minutes, taut and lean with a stress level so mental it’s gut-twisting.


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