Not all movies shot during the COVID-19 pandemic are created equal. While many filmmakers struggled to find small stories that would help them navigate the limitations of the pandemic, the creative team behind The Guilty were working with a cheat code: a single-actor feature based on the Academy Award-shortlisted 2018 Danish thriller of the same name. All they had to do was not fuck it up. To their credit, they came pretty close.
For months, Detective Joe Baylor (Gyllenhaal) has been stuck behind the desk at a call center, helping strangers navigate a series of minor emergencies. Struggling under the weight of an unnamed legal case, Baylor lashes out at co-workers and callers alike, until he finds himself on the other end of the line from a kidnapped woman. Now, with his world literally burning down around him, Baylor chooses to throw caution to the wind and pursue his own salvation in the safe return of another.
On paper, a collaboration between director Antoine Fuqua and True Detective screenwriter Nic Pizzolatto promises to be anything but subtle. But with the modest production design and ironclad script of Gustav Möller’s original 2018 film serving as guardrails, The Guilty is a surprisingly subdued piece of filmmaking. Just as in the original, Fuqua finds genuine tension in the minutiae of the job; life and death is determined by where a GPS location shows up onscreen or when an active call light flips from on to off. Fuqua does add a sense of scope beyond the call center – the television monitors located throughout the building depict a constant wave of fire and first responders as the Los Angeles hillsides burn – but The Guilty is best as a procedural escape room that only Baylor can solve.
Which, in a weird way, is the film’s biggest issue. Gyllenhaal has always been a character actor with the face of a leading man; films like Nightcrawler endure because of the ugliness we see tucked beneath the actor’s polished exterior. But here the actor chooses to play emotions broadly: Except for a few key sequences, his performance feels at-odds with the chamber elements of the film around him. When yours is the only face on screen, the magnitude of your emotions represents both the pacing and ebb and flow of the narrative itself. Gyllenhaal’s performance – which feels lifted from a bigger and more conventional movie – maintains a singular volume throughout, and the film suffers as a consequence.
And in a prolonged period of reflection – where creators are breaking from rote police procedurals in favor of more challenging narratives – it’s hard not to pay close attention to what elements were not carried over into this remake. Like Jakob Cedergren’s Asger Holm in the original, Joe Baylor is a skilled detective, but Holm’s superiority toward those around him was integral to our understanding of his place within the police hierarchy. Gyllenhaal works hard to make Baylor a more conflicted character. Yet in humanizing him the film also reduces an institutional failing into an individual one.
Ultimately, The Guilty is a worthwhile remake, even if it fails to perfectly calibrate performance and production. One can understand why Gyllenhaal would develop this as a project for himself, and it’s definitely quite the showcase for any actor. But here’s hoping Hollywood’s next attempt at remaking this movie (and there’s always a next attempt) dials down the volume even more.
Available on Netflix Oct. 1.
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