The cop drama has been done so often in movies that it’s very difficult to bring anything special to the genre. Add on the reckoning that real-life police departments are facing over their policies and bad actions by some officers, and centering a story on a loose cannon is tough sell in this day and age.
The Guilty forgoes the normal cop stereotypes by placing its lead character, Joe (Jake Gyllenhaal), in a 911 call center. Joe is an officer who has been demoted for reasons that aren’t clear until the final act, and he’s not exactly well-suited for the role. He treats multiple callers with derision or worse, and the resulting conversations are terse and perfunctory.
His mood gets exponentially worse when he takes a call from a woman whom he comes to discover has been kidnapped. He quickly becomes obsessed with trying to help her, using his investigative skills to find out more information about her and her abductor. But the limitations that come with only being able to do so much while sitting at a computer frustrate him, causing him to lash out at the agencies he enlists to track her down.
The film has two figures intimately familiar with cop dramas leading the way, as it was directed by Antoine Fuqua (Training Day) and written by Nic Pizzolato (True Detective). Adapting the story from a 2018 Danish film, the filmmakers attempt to ratchet up the tension of the kidnapping story while also showing how unhinged Joe’s life has become. They mostly accomplish this with Gyllenhaal going into rage mode, a tactic that’s only intermittently effective.
Filmed during COVID, the film only features a few actors on camera, with a bunch of well-known actors — Peter Sarsgaard, Riley Keough, Ethan Hawke, Eli Goree, and Paul Dano among them — chipping in as 911 callers or first responders. The effect is like watching an audio play, but without the sound quality, as it can often be difficult to understand what many of the people on the other end of the line are saying.
Because of the film’s fast pace, a variety of issues come up that the filmmakers don’t even attempt to address. For some reason, all of this takes place while the hills surrounding the Los Angeles area are on fire. This added element mildly affects a couple of sequences, but otherwise seems apropos of nothing. Also, it seems odd that an officer facing some kind of discipline would be temporarily demoted to 911 operator, a position that would seem to require training that a beat officer would not have. Joe doing that job comes off more as a movie gimmick than a legitimate option for someone in his position.
Gyllenhaal has always been an intense actor, and when it works — Brokeback Mountain, Zodiac, Prisoners, Nightcrawler — he’s Oscar-worthy. When it doesn’t, as is the case here, it’s just histrionics with no purpose. As is the case with most voice work, there was no real point in having famous actors occupy the roles, although Hawke and Da’Vine Joy Randolph are enjoyable in their brief “appearances.”
The story of The Guilty might have been an enthralling one, but it’s consistently undermined by Gyllenhaal showing exactly how angry he can get. The filmmakers never find an effective way to deliver the message of the film, leaving it flailing around as much as its central character.
The Guilty is now playing in theaters. It will debut on Netflix on October 1.