Netflix Movie Review: The Guilty (2021)

Arriving 10/1 on Netflix

If you haven’t seen “The Guilty,” you should see “The Guilty.” Let me try this again. If you’ve seen “The Guilty,” you might like “The Guilty.” No, that’s still not quite right. It might help if I tell you that there are two versions of “The Guilty.” There’s the original 2018 Danish film from director Gustav Möller, which was one of the year’s very best movies, and then there’s the new American remake directed by Antoine Fuqua, which debuted last week in theatres in selected cities and will arrive on Netflix on October 1.

Knowing this, I'm sure you can probably guess which of the two pictures I prefer because that's usually the way it goes with remakes of foreign films that frequently lose something vital in the English translation (just like all too often, the book is better than the movie). Of course, there are definite exceptions to this, but in the case of “The Guilty,” it isn't enough just to say that, yes, as predicted, the original version of the film is far superior to the American remake.

Because as a work, it is utterly dependent upon a few major plot revelations that slowly and methodically unfurl over the course of its very stressful roughly ninety-minute running time, since Fuqua's “The Guilty” adheres very closely to Möller's own film, the version you see first might just dictate which one you prefer. 

Set over the course of a very long night in a 911 emergency call center in Los Angeles, as Fuqua's film opens, we meet a police officer who has been temporarily reassigned during an investigation into some sort of conduct violation that we learn more about later on.

In the midst of L.A.'s fire season where the calls are coming in hot and the air is so smoky and polluted that it's exacerbating his asthma something fierce, Jake Gyllenhaal's Joe answers incoming distress calls with the same degree of breathless disdain, cynicism, and entitlement with which he used to patrol the city's streets. Whether it's people requesting help because they took too much speed or were robbed by a hooker (both incidents play out exactly as in the original), Joe counts down the minutes until his hearing the next day, after which he hopes to get off the phones and go back on the beat. However, suddenly, a call comes in that does the unthinkable; it makes Joe not only care but also get very involved.

A woman's (Riley Keough) voice comes in on the line speaking to Joe as though he were her child. But before he disconnects from what he assumes is a wrong number, something in the timbre of her voice stops him. Shaky, tear-filled, and in a state of panic she's trying to hide, when he hears a man (Peter Sarsgaard) ask her who she's talking to, Joe starts piecing together the narrative that she's been abducted by her husband by asking the woman yes or no questions only.

Barely able to sit still in his chair – his jittery hand forever fondling his inhaler because he knows it's only a matter of time before he runs out of breath once again – he becomes a cop again before our eyes. Demanding help from the California Highway Patrol and others who are inundated by fire, crises, and crime calls of their own, Joe tries to route squads to pull over a white van traveling eastbound on the I-10 and also send cars to her home to check on these children that she keeps talking about.

Getting even more frantic when they get disconnected and she doesn't answer the phone, he calls her home to talk to her young daughter who helps Joe fill in a few more blanks. Rather than be the first one out the door from his final shift, he abruptly refuses to leave until he sees this case through to the end. Restrained by legal red tape, jurisdictional issues, and bureaucracy, Joe eventually goes into an isolated room, closes the blinds, and devotes the rest of the film's running time to trying to bring Keough's Emily Lighton home safely.

That old macho rage at a forefront – for reasons both good and bad – he makes a request to his loyal sergeant (voiced by Ethan Hawke) to go and kick some doors in when the more he hears and uncovers about Emily, the more alarmed he becomes. But is he really listening or is he working out his own personal issues with regret as a father in the midst of marital strife? Is he fighting to save Emily or himself?

Both versions of “The Guilty” serve as a reminder that whenever one interacts with emergency services in the form of police, fire, or paramedics, it's on one of the worst days of our lives. Communication, as the works reveal, is at the forefront of our experience, and limits are placed on what gets conveyed, understood, the authority figure's abilities to help (read: not hurt), and whatever they're going through on their own as well.

Where the two works differ greatly is in terms of their approach. Subtle, whittled down, and respectful enough of the audience's intelligence not to give us a lot of overt messages, excuses, spell everything out, or punctuate every new revelation with an intrusive score, Möller's “The Guilty” is masterful in the way it slowly builds to its unbearably tense conclusion. 

In stark contrast, anyone who's seen a film by Antoine Fuqua (“Training Day,” “Southpaw,” “Olympus Has Fallen,” etc.) knows that subtlety is not his strong suit. The new "Guilty" is utterly overstuffed, both with the baggage of Joe and the gravity of America in the present moment. Filled with symbolism, from the fires raging outside and internally in Joe to that damn inhaler, and punctuated with cacophonous sound to drive his points home via a score that “tells” you what and how to feel, "The Guilty" is a lot to absorb without a headache. Also, it's loaded with explanations for behavior that in some ways augment the film by commenting on the problems faced in our country and in others, just play like speechifying sound bites.

Whereas the original film (which Gyllenhaal first saw at Sundance in 2018 and knew immediately he wanted to remake) was content to let the battles within his dynamic main character come to the forefront as needed and often in his micro-expressions or through actor Jakob Cedergren's eyes, the new version makes our lead much more vocal, demonstrative, and unhinged. One of the strongest American actors of his generation, Gyllenhaal is more than up to the task to bring humanity to what is largely a one-man show, save for the remarkable contributions by members of its vocal cast, including Keough, Sarsgaard, Hawke, Paul Dano, and others.

But while the film goes big when it should go little, its tendency to push to the extreme lessens as it continues, when Fuqua, his cinematographer, and editor pull back slightly, and Gyllenhaal dials the bravado down several notches. As someone who grew up around cops, let me be the first to say that they most definitely have a Cop Voice, Cop Manner, and Cop Behavior. And just like when someone gets out of the military, it takes some time for them to leave that behind and just assimilate with the rest of us, Fuqua – who's made many movies dealing with this very thing as both director and producer – understands this well. Gyllenhaal's Joe learns to modulate his voice and behavior the longer he's on the phone with Emily and the film is better for it.

Still, though, the first chunk of his “Guilty,” which was written by “True Detective”'s Nic Pizzolatto (though by their own admission somewhat rewritten by Fuqua and Gyllenhaal), plays like a dropped character and subplot that was edited out of “Training Day.” Far more of an extreme contrast than we truly need as Joe evolves over the course of the movie, as I watched this one, I kept thinking of not only the original Danish production but also Steven Knight's brilliant UK movie “Locke,” from 2013 as well.

Truly a one-man show in terms of actors on the screen, in Knight's film, we see Tom Hardy's character answer a phone call on a drive home that changes everything for him. Something as simple as which direction he's going to go and what he's going to do next has life-altering stakes, and just like in both versions of “The Guilty,” made a few years later, the film's drama comes from his interactions with others whose voices we hear on the other end of his various calls.

Shot in real-time as Hardy made the same drive each night and went through the same emotional drama only a handful of times as if it were a play, both versions of “The Guilty,” were shot similarly. Yet instead of just letting it play out real-time over 90 minutes with Hardy in a car and the cameras ready to go the whole time, both “Guilty” productions were completed in shoots ranging from 11 (Fuqua) to 13 (Möller) days. But by focusing less on manufacturing drama and more on letting it play out on its own, both “Locke” and the original version of “The Guilty” work so much better with far less artifice than the 2021 rendition of the latter.

In the end, of course, Fuqua's film might still be worth watching if you liked Möller's original “Guilty" and are curious what the new incarnation might look like Americanized, with all of these gifted actors, and with the volume turned way, way up. But if you've never pressed play on the original, I'd highly recommend seeing both "Locke" and “The Guilty” before you see “The Guilty,” to see how to tell the story of a man on a phone at a crossroads in his life right.

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