Tuesday 5 October 2021

Movie Review: The Guilty (2021)

A one-person, one-set thriller, The Guilty delves into the troubled soul of a police officer thrust into a harrowing domestic abuse case. The plot's ambitions are constrained, but the character study is forceful.

Los Angeles is being choked by acrid smoke from out-of-control forest fires. Police officer Joe Baylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) is on 911 emergency call duties pending the resolution of a court case. Working the night shift before his court date, Joe is agitated and irritable. He phones his estranged wife Jess (voice of Gillian Zinser) to say goodnight to their daughter, but only makes matters worse.

Then Joe fields a 911 call from the cell phone of Emily Lighton (voice of Riley Keough), who pleads for help. She has been abducted and is being transported in a white van. Joe connects with the California Highway Patrol dispatcher (voice of Da'Vine Joy Randolph) and his sergeant Bill Miller (voice of Ethan Hawke) to mobilize resources and search for the van. Then he tracks down Emily's home address and realizes her young kids are home alone and in peril. Emily's plight becomes more complicated, and Joe is in for a long night.

Featuring just Gyllenhaal in a dark room equipped with a headset and computer screens, The Guilty lacks cinematic panache but does deliver an acting showcase. Director Antoine Fuqua and screenwriter Nic Pizzolatto remake the 2018 Danish movie and produce a taut 90 minute thriller stacked with narrative surprises and matching psychological twists. All events take place over one night at the dimly lit communications centre, where even the indoor air is contaminated by a city on fire.

Joe is dependant on an inhaler and having trouble breathing, his inner demons metaphorically choking him as the themes of guilt denied and guilt presumed predominate. Wracked by his inability to come to terms with his actions in the incident that threatens his career, he is falling apart emotionally, snapping at the slightest provocation and unable to hold a rational conversation.

Now Emily presents him with the emergency of an abducted woman, complicated by children in danger. From his communications perch Joe uncovers the profile of an abusive estranged husband, connects the dots, and orchestrates interventions, setting off a series of cascading events. Of course what he can discern and deduce is only part of the truth, and the night will expose Joe's fragility and failings.

Gyllenhaal's efforts are heroic in conveying coiled up distress and bursts of release. But despite the power residing in the story of one individual on the edge of breakdown, the format limitations ultimately do catch up with the material. The drama can generate only limited tension and empathy for the disembodied voices of never-seen characters on the other side of Joe's phone.

The Guilty may lack breadth and scope, but the singular intensity is undeniable.

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