Imagine, if you will, being trapped in the dark after you’ve been told that there’s a live tiger in the room? It’s quiet at first but then you hear the pacing. Then the low growl. You whimper, and very soon it’s anarchy. The terror and fury all around you but you just can’t see it. Your mind races to bridge the gap between the heard and the unseen. Engineering every gruesome and horrific possibility imaginable. Playing these scenes over and over again. The tension is so great, you’re just begging for the real to take you, just so you don’t have to suffer the hypothetical any longer. That’s what watching Netflix’s “The Guilty” feels like. Pure agonising adrenaline and dread, all captured through the eyes and ears of Jake Gyllenhaal’s 9-1-1 operator.
The concept of an entire film being played out over a series of phone-calls isn’t a particularly new one. As far as we’re concerned, 2013’s “Locke” starring Tom Hardy (go watch it) was the first known film to have ever utilised this ingenious plot device. By robbing us of our visual gratification for spectacle, the film forces us to keep our focus squarely locked on the its lead’s perspective and their state of mind. There’s no omniscient third-person knowledge. His ignorance, fear, rage and anxiety is all ours. Which is why its such a dangerous gamble because all this tension is gone if the lead fails to provide a compelling performance. There is no where to hide. Needless to say, there is an immense amount pressure on actor Jake Gyllenhaal to carry this entire film. Thankfully, the actor delivers and then some!
The film is a remake of a Danish crime thriller of the same name and is largely faithful to the source material. It follows the story of a disillusioned 9-1-1 dispatcher answering a call for distress before being sucked into a harrowing race against time. Now Gyllenhaal’s Joe Bayler must engage in a dire game of cat-and-mouse. One that requires him to draw out as much information as he can without arousing suspicion. One that will see him negotiate, leverage and threaten his way to justice. All this over a phone line.
It is hardly hyperbolic to describe the plot of 2021’s “The Guilty” as relentless. Much like the asthmatic Bayler, the film leaves us with little to no time to catch our breathes. With a lean runtime of an hour and twenty minutes, one would expect the film’s pacing to compromise the narrative quality in some regard. Miraculously, it doesn’t! The plot does a brilliant job of parcelling out each piece of this police drama puzzle at a deliberate pace. There’s never a moment that meanders too long but it also knows when to allow the audience to absorb the shocking twists and turns in each act. It all culminates in a heart wrenching, mind-breaking reveal that leaves Bayler and the rest of us devastated.
With writer Nic Pizzolota and director Antoine Fuqua’s foot on the pedal, how does the film find time to develop its principal star? Well, a good part of his character’s pathos and ethos rely on the audience knowing common cop tropes. The typical 24/7 on-the-job working man who has grown distant from his family. What sets “The Guilty” apart from its generic peers is that Pizzolota doesn’t merely stop at the trope. Instead, he uses it as a familiar springboard to dive deeper into the psyche of an obsessed man struggling to find his own salvation by rescuing an abducted mother. He doesn’t exactly innovate the staple of the crime thriller genre but he certainly makes it work to his advantage.
All this of course is brought to life by an emotionally charged and intense performance by Gyllenhaal. The actor had also played a lead in Fuqua’s 2015 gritty and bloody sports drama, “Southpaw”. There, Gyllenhaal brought an unhinged ferocity that exploded in every scene he was in. He brings a similar energy to the character of Bayler here. However, unlike Fuqua’s inconsistent comeback boxer flick, Gyllenhaal builds on the lived experiences of real-life 9-1-1 operators and law enforcement personnel. Long before we see him thrust into life-or-death stakes, there’s a guardedness to his demeanour. One that accurately mimics the PTSD of those who must engage with the violence of the streets on a day-to-day basis.
His frustration and rage is now further compounded by the disgrace of being reassigned as a call operator. We’re never told exactly why but the longer we sit with him as he descends deeper and deeper into his crusade, we began to comprehend. It’s like being trapped on a car ride with the world’s angriest person. We were wholly expecting the film to embrace the all too common antihero sentiment. The loose cannon that gets the job done. Instead Fuqua and Pizzolota ops for a far more quieter and sobering conclusion. One that leaves us, alongside Bayler, questioning the nature of morality and justice.
Actress Riley Keough’s talent as the voice of Emily Lighton should not be overlooked. Keough’s captivating performance as a woman caught in the middle of a bad situation is a surprisingly complex one. Playing off our perceived sympathies before pulling the rug from under us to reveal a far darker truth hidden beneath the surface. In spite of the entirety of the film being confined to a call centre, the music, framing and editing all do a top-notch job in crafting a atmosphere of dread that holds throughout the film’s relatively brief runtime. We recommend watching “The Guilty” on a pair of noise-cancelling headphones. It makes for a deeply immersive and satisfying experience!
Netflix’s “The Guilty” is more than just a non-stop thrill ride, it is a powerful exploration of the foibles, nobility and trauma of urban law enforcement. Through Gyllenhaal’s arresting performance, you’re transported into the disturbing reality of domestic violence. One that you cannot see but sounds all too real. One that you will not soon forget. In a genre that’s often populated with high-octane car chases and shoot-outs, it’s rare to find a film that’s able to capture of the excitement of those things in such a limited but novel premise. Be sure to check out “The Guilty” when it hits Netflix on October 1st!
If you are looking for something that’s a little more action-heavy, you should check out our review on Netflix’s Kate! Also, be sure to leave a react down below to tell us what you thought of Netflix’s “The Guilty”.
Netflix's "The Guilty" Review
Netflix’s “The Guilty” is more than just a non-stop thrill ride, it is a powerful exploration of the foibles, nobility and trauma of urban law enforcement. Through Jake Gyllenhaal’s arresting performance, you're transported into the disturbing reality of domestic violence. One that you cannot see but sounds all too real. One that you will not soon forget.
- Netflix's "The Guilty" Review