Jake Gyllenhaal will be on-demand in The Guilty on Netflix October 1st.
Trapped in a police station while forest fires are raging outside, worried cop Jake Gyllenhaal discovers that all he can do is talk in the new Netflix thriller The Guilty.
Gyllenhaal is Joe, a detective demoted to answering phones who is barely able to hold back his seething frustration and resentment at the loathsome Los Angeles people calling for help. The gimmick of the film is that just like Joe, we’re stuck in the call center. Everything takes place in this one room, the drama comes from every whispering voice in the dark as Joe tries to solve a kidnapping within four walls. The film premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, opens in theaters September 24th and will be streamed on Netflix on October 1st.
The Guilty is Training Day director Antoine Fuqua’s second film this year after the shiny but jumbled sci-fi snoozer. True Detective’s author, Nic Pizzolatto, is referred to as the author, although it’s hard to see how much has really changed from the original version, a . Casting Gyllenhaal, the US remake is reminiscent of another LAPD thriller with a camera gimmick, End of Watch, and this is almost like a spiritual sequel as it plunges into the psyche of the men who own the badge and the gun to lead. But Joe has other things on his mind than to serve and protect.
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The mood-lit mailroom is lit by a huge array of screens showing the chaos outside: raging forest fires, burning police cars, news reports from LA’s forefront of human misery. The swirling conflagration in the background gives the film much-needed visual interest as the energy and drive come from the cut between takes and from Gyllenhaal’s performance. Both the cut and Gyllenhaal’s play are fidgety and rub against the limitations of the single room. It’s a decent performance by Gyllenhaal, but a parallel subplot about Joe’s legal troubles never really gets going, so we don’t see the layers of his unlikable character unfold.
We first meet Joe, who is sucking on an asthma inhaler and the air of his city turns him on. A good 40% of the following film consists of this repeated take, while Gyllenhaal is annoyed in a close close-up. Joe is a deeply unhappy man who frequently zones or blows up. He’s dismissive and unhelpful to people who call for help, tells a scared, drug addict caller that it’s their own fault that they freak out, and insists that the police will come by ambulance. Whether he’s yelling at his coworkers or calling his ex in the middle of the night, he can’t stop himself from making things worse.
Set in LA, the film is assuming terrifying timeliness as forest fires burn the world outside, just as the Dixie Fire and thousands of others continue to devastate the West Coast. The desperation is palpable as the police struggle not to be overwhelmed, both logistically and on a personal, emotional level. Although not mentioned in the movie, The Guilty is also a product of the pandemic. The film was announced in 2018, well before COVID, but the tiny cast and single location made it the ideal socially distant production when it was shot in late 2020.
Director Antoine Fuqua takes COVID security measures while filming The Guilty in 2020.
“Social distance” could be a theme of the film, which is set in a city where millions are packed on top of each other and yet live worlds apart. By telling a story through invisible voices, The Guilty focuses on the way people talk to one another.
Police officers resist not only against civilians, but also against each other and throw up verbal body armor that instead makes them isolated, vulnerable, even fragile. Dispatchers whose entire job is to talk to others are dispassionate to the point of deafness. Whether they’re job-locked or traumatized, or just being assholes, they’re rubbing against the cross between LAPD and CHP or whatever other stem of acronym they’re nominally tied to.
“Don’t tell me what to do,” growls a street cop at Joe as the patrolman heads for a traffic stop and carries his anger, resentment and ego into an interaction with a civilian who feels toxic and threatening before it even happens has started. On the phone line we hear the patrolmen yelling at a citizen whose only crime is driving a car that looks a bit like a car that may be involved in a crime. You have probably experienced enough dashcam or smartphone horror in the past few years to be bitterly aware of how tragically and pointlessly this interaction can go wrong.
Cops suggested by the film have their own problems. And most importantly, these problems leave them with buttons that need to be pressed. A cop who knows he must be on guard all the time will be guarded even when he shouldn’t be, and a cop who misses his family will bring his own luggage if he messed up with someone else Deals with family situation. This could be a criticism of the police system that shows that power over life and death rests in the hands of people who are emotionally ill-equipped to deal with it.
Or it could be seen as an argument that police officers do their best in impossible situations. When the film is about communication, about asking for help, it is also specifically about how people talk to the police. Sure, the number of cases of domestic or unpunished violence by police officers is terrifying, but maybe we should relax the police a little: they are yelled at all day. Given the current protests against ongoing police violence, especially against colored people, The Guilty is strangely sympathetic to some clearly uncomfortable characters.
Nerve-wracking twists and turns keep The Guilty moving, but even after barely 90 minutes it can get stuck, depending on your tolerance for extreme close-up shots of Gyllenhaal with a frown. In the end, Gyllenhaal’s broken policeman has no words, which might fit in with a movie that doesn’t have as much to say as it could have.
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