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TIFF 2021 Review: ‘The Guilty’ Lacks Substance and Character

TIFF 2021 Review: ‘The Guilty’ Lacks Substance and Character

Filmmaker Antoine Fuqua, best known for his work in Training Day, The Equalizer, and Brooklyn’s Finest, is back to work with actor Jake Gyllenhaal after their first film Southpaw.

The edge-of-your-seat thriller The Guilty may be familiar to some audiences, as this story was released as the Danish film (Den Skyldige) just a few short years ago at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, starring Jakob Cedegren as the movie’s lead protagonist Asger Holm. 

In this 2020 U.S. remake, Jake Gyllenhaal takes the lead as Joe Bayler, a man who has a lot on his mind and within the next 24 hours is facing a court appearance that could change the course of his life. Once on-duty officer, now 911 dispatcher, Joe feels like he has something to prove with his recent “demotion.” As wildfires are raging in California, there is also an inner rage brewing inside of Joe that he’s trying to control. The close-knit family he once knew is falling apart at the seams, and he’s losing his only daughter. Joe can barely take deep breaths to relieve his stress as he coughs incessantly and takes out his inhaler. It has become clear that Joe’s chronic asthma has interfered with his anxiety, and it’s slowly taking its toll at work. 

However, Joe’s day is about to get even more interesting when a mysterious call comes through his line. On the other end is Emily (Riley Keough), a frightened woman in distress who is in a life-threatening situation. Although we never see Emily, her voice tells us everything. Time is neither on Joe’s nor Emily’s side as he tries to help the woman, who sounds as if she’s being held against her will. Law enforcement tries to navigate the smoky conditions during these wildfires to track and locate Emily’s whereabouts.

The Guilty is not too far off from the Danish version Den Skyldige, based on the work of author ​​Gustav Möller. Both films are tonally similar, taking place in one-location inside of a 911 dispatch call center. True Detective writer Nic Pizzolatto in his central conceit works to combat that comparison by taking a few creative liberties, including neutralizing the original film’s shocking ending plot twist.

While the film tries to capture moments of manipulating Joe’s neurological responses to Emily’s distress call, there’s less empathy placed on the victim in need of immediate help and more egotistical entitlement for Gyllenhaal’s character, who is hell bent on doing whatever it takes to get Emily the help she needs, even if it means breaking a few rules.  And while this on the surface seems to be the approach — albeit aggressive — to take in a life-or-death matter, the story never quite sets the audience up to fully comprehend Joe’s motives at this point. Why is he so obsessed with this call? Why is he risking his career to save this one woman out of many men and women who call in with life-threatening situations every day? What specifically is it about this one call that stands out from the others?

And that is where the film falls flat and pales in comparison to the Danish version. In that version, Asger has something to prove, and there’s an actual pathos that’s injected into the development of his character. The audience gets a sense of who he is long before that first cryptic call that sets the story in motion. 

While this isn’t Gyllenhaal’s strongest performance (I’d give that one to Nightcrawler), he’s charismatic enough to pay attention to on screen. He’s talented enough he could help give a flat script some depth with his acting chops. See Velvet Buzzsaw if you need further explanation of what I mean.

Fuqua doesn’t utilize the art of extreme close-ups enough in this film as compared to Den Skyldige. The close-ups and slow pan movements of Asger ambling into frame were practically non-existent. It appears Fuqua took a different approach with quicker edits, jarring jump cuts, and wider frames to convey Joe’s anxiety and raise the intensity of the scene.  Unfortunately, it kind of falls flat in a one-location setting. Joe’s story does tackle state-sanctioned violence, and he suffers the trauma of those experiences. While the attempt to make a film spurred by the current events should have made for an impactful thriller, there’s just nothing here on this take of Gustav Möller’s narrative.

The Guilty tries its best to weave in elements of a police drama but ultimately ends up becoming a disappointing crop of cliches you’ve seen in every other thriller of this ilk.  Your best bet is to watch the Danish version instead. 

The film comes with an all-star cast, most that you never see but only hear through Joe’s dispatcher radio. This includes Ethan Hawke, Riley Keough, Christina Vidal Mitchell, Eli Goree, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, David Castañeda, Paul Dano, Bill Burr, and Peter Sarsgaard.

Gyllenhaal also serves as producer on this film.

The Guilty premiered at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival. The movie debuts in select theaters on September 24 and Netflix October 1.

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