Having been featured on the big screen for three decades at this point, Jake Gyllenhaal has consistently proven that he can do anything. Regardless of genre or tone, his performances are always genuine and impressive – even in cases when he’s a part of projects that otherwise underwhelm. He’s not just one of the most reliable leads among actors working today, but the exact kind of performer you want starring in a locked room drama with only one primary character. That’s a theory that’s made absolute fact in Antoine Fuqua’s The Guilty, as Gyllenhaal successfully delivers a turn so exceptional that it successfully overshadows a somewhat predictable plot.
It’s not technically a one-man show, as the protagonist has colleagues to interact with, and the movie primarily unfolds through phone calls, but The Guilty is absolutely The Jake Gyllenhaal Show, and he stuns. It’s a tightrope walk of a performance for many reasons, but the actor proves so adept that he’s doing flips and cartwheels, and it’s more than gripping enough to make you completely forget that the drama doesn’t leave what one could estimate as a 200ft space.
Based on the 2018 Danish film of the same name (which I will admit that I haven’t seen), and written by Nic Pizzolatto, The Guilty stars Jake Gyllenhaal as Joe Baylor – a Los Angeles police officer awaiting trial who has been temporarily demoted to the 9-1-1 dispatch desk. The night before he is set to appear in court, he works a particularly stressful shift, as incidents related to spreading wildfires in the area keep the phones particularly jammed. However, there is one call he fields that steals his attention away from everything else that’s going on.
On the other end of the line is a young woman named Emily Lighton (Riley Keough), who calls 9-1-1 pretending that she is talking to her young daughter. What’s really going on, though, is that Emily has been taken into a van against her will by her ex-con boyfriend, Henry (Peter Sarsgaard), and they are driving to an unknown location. Joe struggles to keep her on the line, and he can’t leave his post, but he becomes fully devoted to her case because he has a young daughter of his own – one he has become distanced from because of the legal issues he has been going through.
In an effort to try and save Emily, Joe begins to coordinate calls, contacting the California Highway Patrol about the vehicle, and working to try and get officers to go to both Emily’s house to check on her children, and Henry’s place to learn about where he may be going. When he doesn’t get the immediate results he wants, he grows increasingly frustrated with the limitations of the dispatch desk, and he begins to venture beyond the permissions of his position so that he can try to save the day.
Jake Gyllenhaal manages to be both unlikable and magnetic in The Guilty.
What’s most impressive about Jake Gyllenhaal’s turn in The Guilty is the fact that he is one of the least likable characters that the actor has ever portrayed. We learn very early on that he has been indicted on a serious crime, which obviously doesn’t earn him any bonus points off the bat, but the man is riddled with personality issues. Even if you excuse him for the stress that he’s under, and recognize the urgency in the situation, he still comes across as an irascible, petulant jerk who is liable to blow his stack the moment he doesn’t get his way. And yet there is enough emotional complexity constantly strewn across Gyllenhaal’s face that keeps you wholly invested.
That investment is absolutely necessary given that The Guilty has him at the center of every scene, but the star carries that load like a half-empty backpack. Joe’s impotent rage may be off-putting, but his urgency is contagious. His methods are terrible, but his commitment makes an impression, and instills a curiosity about how things play out.
It’s not hard to figure out where The Guilty is going, but it’s still a thrilling ride.
The big caveat to that is that it’s not terribly hard to at least vaguely predict how things are going to play out. The aesthetic commitment to showing only Joe Baylor’s side of the action is well-executed, but it also has a strong influence on the audience’s perception of the story. In addition to having the character’s extreme aggressiveness causing you to question his actions, there is also a persistent voice in the back of your mind that reminds you that the movie is never delivering a full picture of what’s happening on the other end of the various phone calls.
The instinct to be suspicious of what The Guilty isn’t showing the audience is impossible to ignore, and it provides you with certain expectations of where things are going to go. As such, when the big turns hit, they don’t quite pack the wallop that they should. It’s a weakness in the structure – though there is still enough meat on the bones to provide a compelling and thrilling experience.
Antoine Fuqua delivers his best film since Training Day.
As an LAPD story that entirely transpires over the course of one day, there’s a degree to which one could look at The Guilty as a kind of spiritual sequel to Training Day – which is extra appropriate since it’s Antoine Fuqua’s best film since the 2001 Oscar-winning drama. Not only does he get a fantastic performance from Jake Gyllenhaal (something he was also able to do in the making of the 2015 underwhelming boxing feature Southpaw), but he also successfully maintains pressure and pacing with intense close-ups and smart camera movement. It’s a very different kind of swing for the filmmaker, who has been more focused on making action movies in the last decade, but in that context it’s an ambitious winner.
The kind of story that The Guilty sets up is exceptionally difficult to pull off, but that makes it all the more exciting when they succeed, and this is a great example. Led by a phenomenal and complex performance from Jake Gyllenhaal, it’s a thriller that grips you from the start and maintains it right through the satisfying and emotional conclusion.