Who picks up on the other end when you call 9-11? What can they really do for you, armed with little more than what you can convey over the phone? Netflix’s newest original film, The Guilty, starts with this very simple premise and proceeds with it in a deeply satisfying way, creating an intimate, suspenseful mystery that challenges you to look the other way.
After premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival, The Guilty will hit theaters in limited editions on September 24th. It will make its Netflix debut on October 1st in the US and numerous global markets.
Read on for our review on The Guilty.
An exciting, complex mystery
Joe Baylor is a police officer who works at the 911 operator. He is a man struggling with a strained marriage and some professional setbacks. This is not Joe’s regular job and he’s not happy to be here. Along with the regular stress of the job and the raging forest fires in California, there is an upcoming court date. Joe is off the street and behind a desk because he’s being checked for something he’s done. We don’t know what this is, but the pieces are starting to come together as The Guilty slowly chugs.
But all of this personal struggle fades into the background when Joe receives a call from Emily, a woman who has been kidnapped. What kind of car is she in? Who is her kidnapper? Where you go? Are your children all right at home and can Joe keep his promise to bring them back? The questions are difficult to answer as everyone is inundated with limited resources. It’s almost impossible to find the vehicle that Emily is sitting in. A barely visible, nondescript white van with an unknown license plate number and destination can easily slip by on a smoke-curtained freeway where police officers all over LA respond to emergencies.
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But we don’t get to see much of that. Not directly. Most of The Guilty is told from Joe’s very limited perspective as he tries to get a grip on the situation that is increasingly eluding him. Can he really get a complete picture from where he is? Is Emily in good hands when Joe goes out of his way to help her as she battles his own demons? And does he even understand what he’s dealing with?
The Guilty is directed by Antoine Fuqua (Training Day, The Equalizer) and is based on a 2018 Danish film of the same name Resetting the justice system marked by various overlapping injustices, Fuqua and his team do an excellent job of reconstructing The Guilty as a distinctly American nightmare.
The tragedy of male anger
While The Guilty’s central abduction creates a lot of tension and intrigue, the film is also a character study of Joe. When we aim at him – alone at a computer terminal and connected to the callers at the same time – we experience a night in LA from his unique perspective.
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But his perspective is deeply flawed. Joe is certainly not who most of us want to be on the other end of the line when we need help. He’s distracted. He is impatient. His anger flares up at the slightest provocation. And he has a god complex who thinks he can do anyone’s jobs better than her. That he should be out in the field instead of wrongly (at least in his mind) sitting on the bench like that.
Jake Gyllenhaal is at his best in this character study of a broken man desperate for control.
It’s a sharp and thoughtful portrait of manhood and policing. And of the unbridled power and destruction we find in both. As we watch Joe devote all of his anger and energy to helping Emily, it quickly becomes apparent that this is both a therapeutic outlet and a public service exercise for him. He’s working on what went wrong in his marriage, coping with his limitations as a father, and finally starting to tackle what he did to get reassigned to 9/11. However, his frantic attempts to solve everything at once can tarnish his abilities.
Jake Gyllenhaal gives a character an incredible depth that we would otherwise write off as a two-dimensional hothead. That’s certainly part of Joe, but it’s really just the surface of a tormented soul who barely knows how to exist in society.
The verdict: The Guilty Review
The Guilty is a very welcome addition to the growing fleet of Netflix original films and is one of the best American films released so far this year. It’s the kind of mid-budget adult drama that seems to be on a resurgence thanks to streamers.
The film might have a little less hit with its shocking revelations if you’ve seen the Danish title it is based on, but Gyllenhaal’s tortured performance and Fuqua’s tight direction make it a compelling character study in its own right. Some outstanding voices from Riley Keough, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Peter Sarsgaard, and Ethan Hawke work great against Gyllenhaal’s hectic Joe, as disembodied voices on the other end of the line.
Don’t be surprised if Gyllenhaal’s name makes the rounds of awards season.