The Guilty review – Jake Gyllenhaal’s tense 911 call thriller

By Peter Bradshaw
Jake Gyllenhaal in The Guilty
Jake Gyllenhaal in The Guilty, a well-made and watchable picture. Photograph: Netflix/AP

Here’s a tense single-location thriller directed by Antoine Fuqua, remade from Gustav Möller’s hugely admired Danish movie Den Skyldige (The Guilty) with a little more Hollywood gloss and based on the time-honoured premise of the 911 emergency operator taking a nail-biting call from a female kidnap victim who is pretending to her abductor that she is speaking to her infant daughter, and having to speak in code. (Brad Anderson’s 2013 film The Call – starring Halle Berry as the operator – had a comparable idea.)

Joe Baylor, played by a gaunt Jake Gyllenhaal, is a troubled LAPD officer with a failed marriage and failing health; he has evidently got into serious trouble over some incident at work – and keeps getting calls from the press. Now, while his case is being investigated, Joe has been busted down to what he considers the humiliatingly lowly level of emergency operator with a headset phone, taking 911 calls from the public, the vast majority of these being farcically unimportant. Meanwhile, California wildfires are creating a continuous, ambient atmosphere of crisis.

Then Joe is electrified to take the tearful call from a terrified woman, and whatever his own problems, his police savvy kicks in – he cleverly divines exactly what the situation is and how he can find out what’s happening from just a few clues. And the parallels with his own fraught family situation suggest to the agonised Joe that some kind of personal redemption is possible, and that Joe should make some desperate attempt to control and solve the entire situation from the phone. He becomes increasingly unprofessional and crazy – staying on the job after his shift ends and ignoring all the other 911 calls.

Inevitably, it’s a stagey set-up, and the dramatic effect of the closeup on the officer’s sweaty face and the distant voice on the other end of the line begins to diminish over time, so Gyllenhaal has to lose it more extravagantly with shouting and temper-loss and confessional agony. But as time passes, it seems that the situation is more complicated that Joe thought – as is the question of who the title refers to.

Perhaps to overcompensate for the lack of conventionally opened-out dramatic action, there is some big closeup acting from Gyllenhaal, but it’s a well-made and watchable picture of a man in the secular confessional box, a sinner forced to occupy the place of a priest.

  • The Guilty is screening at the Toronto film festival and will be released on Netflix on 1 October


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