The principles that seem to be working for Antoine Fuqua’s filmography these days is just how versatile he is in the projects he’s hire to direct, and most of the time he pulls off very solid performances, and he’s often drawn to films where his male protagonists are confined to their career within corrupt institutions. That said, Fuqua has not made a gratifying film since his breakthrough year in 2001, with the adequate but tense Training Day that won Denzel Washington his second Oscar and first for Best Lead actor. A little over a dozen films under his belt, most of films have been mediocre or passable mainstream Hollywood films, with action-thrillers like Tears of the Sun and Shooter, to big-budget popcorn films like Olympus Has Fallen and The Equalizer, to some more sports drama terrain with the 2017 boxing drama Southpaw and The Magnificent Seven (2017) which was a disappointing remake of the1 960 John Sturges western classic. His latest The Guilty, which is also a remake of the 2018 Danish Film of the same US title (the Danish title is Den Skyldige), is a flawed film, but worthy to watch mainly for Jake Gyllenhaal’s mostly solo performance and a breezy running time of just 90 mins.
Shot during the height of the pandemic in the fall of 2020 with limited settings and cast, you think you were watching something Robert Altman would helm during the 80s with his mostly verbose films and the absence of many set-pieces. The Guilty is one of Fuqua’s strongest acted films since Training Day and perhaps Jake Gyllenhaal’s most impressive performance since his stunning work in Dan Gilroy’s 2014 masterwork Nightcrawler and Tom Ford’s 2016 impressive neo-noir Nocturnal Animals. The film certainly has many gripping moments and it takes a while to absorb the limited setting, and ennui of the screen presence of Gyllenhaal who’s mostly on a headset or a phone as a 9/11 dispatcher.
While very short (Around 90 mins), the film is narratively clunky, with many impressive moments and a disappointing conclusion. You can determine right when the film loses momentum. It’s during the scenes involving marital dilemmas and custody battles that feel like detours. Also, when a revelation occurs it takes an abrupt turn that doesn’t quite match the intensity of the rest of the film, even though it ends with a conclusion over title cards with a result that feels underwritten and underdeveloped.
The film is about Joe Baylor (Gyllenhaal) a LA police officer who has been demoted to a 9/11 dispatcher due to a pending investigation against him. You can certainly sense that Joe is passionate about protecting and that he is eager to get back to police work as he is very hot-tempered against his fellow dispatchers and officers. Joe has great detection skills, and they are put to test during numerous calls he receives through the evening that includes drunken callers, Joe’s police chief (Ethan Hawke), and by fellow dispatchers (Da’Vine Joy Randolph). Eventually he receives a phone call from a troubled woman, Emily (Voiced by Riley Keough), who is quietly sobbing on her cell phone as she has been abducted by her husband Henry (Voiced by Paul Dano). Meanwhile, both of their small children are left alone at home. Emily pretends she is calling her children to trick Henry into believing they are talking to their children, as Joe attempts to get the description of the vehicles so the LAPD can track their whereabouts. However, tracking the vehicle is difficult due to the massive amount of smoke from a California wildfire that also takes up a lot of first-responders as many other citizens in the vicinity in LA suffer from being victims of crime.
Visually, the film isn’t as chaotic or as frantic as Fuqua’s previous endeavors. He uses a lot of close-ups and static shots to capture Joe’s face and expressions while he anxiously waits to track down Emily and get police to her children. The film in many ways recalls Joel Schumacher’s 2003 taut thriller Phone Booth, while also gimmicky and verbose in a lot of the same ways, the film doesn’t quite match the adrenaline or intensity of Schumacher’s overlooked film. This remake holds for some well-acted and some intense moments, but so was the original. One of the most forced things about it is how they use globs of changes to make it feel relevant with commentary on wildfires, that never brings in real commentary into the film other than perhaps shows how police are in a deadlock with many other issues that get in the way of rescuing Emily from danger.
Fuqua and screenwriter Nic Pizzolatto also turn their focus on systemic police corruption and how Joe is responsible for some police brutality that is discovered during one of his calls as he begs for Emily to stay strong as she panics for her life. Fuqau has tackled this topic before in Training Day, but there isn’t much of a moral compass grounded with the revelation that feels hurried and tacked-on. Gyllenhaal once again delivers a layered and impressive performance in conveying the emotions of a conflicted man, who is driven to the edge of emotional frailty. A man who also struggles to maintain his own mental and even physical health as he struggles with an endless cough and asthma attacks. While an impressive performance, sadly the film as a whole bypasses many opportunities in a yarn that holds more potential than what was delivered.