Stuck in a police dispatch center in LA with terrifying forest fires raging outside, the troubled cop Jake Gyllenhaal finds that all he can do is talk in the new thriller The Guilty, which is now streaming on Netflix.
Gyllenhaal is Joe, a detective who is taken down to answer phones and is barely able to stem his smoldering frustration and resentment over the disgusting people of Los Angeles calling for help. The gimmick of the film is that we, like Joe, are stuck inside the call center. Everything plays out in this one room, the drama comes from every whispering voice in the dark as Joe finds himself trying to solve a kidnapping within four walls. The film premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, opened in theaters on September 24 and will be streamed on Netflix from October 1.
The Guilty is Training Day director Antoine Fuqua’s second film this year after the shiny but confused sci-fi snoozer. True Detective author Nic Pizzolatto is credited as the author, though it’s hard to see how much has really changed from the original version, a . By casting Gyllenhaal, the American remake is reminiscent of yet another LAPD thriller with a camera gimmick, End of Watch, and this is almost like a spiritual sequel as it dives into the psyche of the men wearing badges and guns. But Joe has other things on his mind besides serving and protecting.
The evocatively lit shipping room is lit by a giant bank of screens showing the chaos outside: raging wildfires, burning police cars, news reports from LA’s frontline about human misery. The swirling combustion in the background gives the film a much-needed visual interest, as the energy and momentum comes from the editing between shots and from Gyllenhaal’s performance. Both the editing and Gyllenhaal’s acting are restless and rub against the limitations of the single room. It’s a decent enough performance from Gyllenhaal, but a parallel underplot about Joe’s legal problems never really gets underway, so we can not see the layers in his incomparable character unfold.
We first meet Joe, who sucks on an asthma inhaler, the very air of the city turns towards him. Probably a good 40% of the following film consists of this shot repeated, as Gyllenhaal worries in close-up. Joe is a deeply unhappy man who often zones out or blows up. He is dismissive and unhelpful to the people who call for help, and tells a scared, drug addict who calls, it is their own fault that they freak out and make a point of adding that the police are coming with the ambulance. Whether he snaps at his fellow officers or calls his ex in the middle of the night, he can’t stop him from making things worse.
The film, which takes place in LA, gets a cooling topicality as wildfires burn the world outside, just as the Dixie fire and thousands of others continue to ravage the west coast. There is a tangible sense of desperation as the police struggle not to be overwhelmed, both in terms of logistics and on a personal, emotional level. Although not mentioned in the film, The Guilty is also a product of the pandemic. The film was announced in 2018, long before COVID, but the small cast and individual placement made it the ideal socially distant production when it was shot in late 2020.
“Social distance” can be a theme for the film, which takes place in a city where millions are packed on top of each other and yet worlds live apart. By telling a story through invisible voices, The Guilty focuses on the way people talk to each other.
Police officers brush not just on civilians but on each other and throw verbal armor that instead makes them isolated, vulnerable, even fragile. Senders whose whole job is to talk to others are passionate about numbness. Whether split or traumatized by the job or just assholes, they rub crossover between LAPD and CHP or any acronym strain they are nominally attached to.
“Do not tell me what to do,” a patrolman on the highway growls down the phone as the patrolman edges toward a traffic jam, carrying his separate anger, resentment and ego in an interplay with a civilian who feels toxic and threatening before it at all has begun. Down the phone line, we hear the patrols barking at a citizen whose only crime is driving a car that power looks a bit like a car there power be involved in a crime, maybe. You’ve probably been exposed to enough real dashcam or smartphone horrors in recent years to feel bitterly aware of how this interaction can go tragically and meaninglessly wrong.
Police the film suggests have their own problems. And crucially, these problems leave them with buttons to push. An officer who knows he must be on guard at all times is guarded even though he should not be, and an officer who misses his family carries his own luggage when dealing with another messy family situation. This may be a critique of the police system, showing that life and death are in the hands of people who are emotionally ill-equipped to deal with it.
Or it can be seen as an argument that cops just do the best they can in impossible situations. If the film is about communicating, about asking for help, it is also specifically about how people talk to the police. Sure, the number of assaults in the home or unpunished violence that the police authorities designate is horrible, but maybe we should cut the police down a bit: They are being shouted all day. Given the current protests over continued police violence, especially against coloreds, The Guilty is strangely sympathetic to some clearly unpleasant characters.
Nervous twists keep The Guilty moving, but even for close to 90 minutes it can sink, depending on your tolerance for staring at extreme close-ups of Gyllenhaal frowning. In the end, Gyllenhaal’s ruined cop is lost for words, which may be appropriate for a film that does not have as much to say as it could have.
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