After his labored and pointless remake of The Magnificent Seven five years ago and a sequel, The Equalizer 2, two years later, director Antoine Fuqua has repackaged yet another pre-existing entity in The Guilty. The highly pressurized and claustrophobic thriller is based on a Danish original that was the debut feature by Gustav Moller, who co-wrote it with Emil Nygaard Alberton. After its 2019 Sundance Film Festival premiere, Den Skyldige was picked up by Magnolia and went on to a good art house career. This new American version is also set in just one location, a Los Angeles 911 dispatch call center from where cops try to calm down crazies and troublemakers over the phone, and it’s justified by the opportunity for Jake Gyllenhaal to deliver a tour de force performance; he’s essentially the whole show.
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Shot in 11 days during Covid, this tightly wound drama from Netflix that is world premiering at the Toronto Film Festival is the sort of story that television loved back in the 1950s, an urgent, single-set, actor-centric story that’s all about writing and bravura acting. The original, called Den Skyldige, was written by Gustav Moller and Emil Nygaard Albertson, and this has been adapted by Nic Pizzolatto, who wrote the script for Fuqua’s Magnificent Seven, as well as numerous episodes of True Detective.
The setting is a large, modern room, where the crew-cutted Joe Baylor (Gyllenhaal) takes a seat at the high-tech communications center and prepares to deal with all manner of emergencies that inevitably present themselves daily in the big city. The place looks well funded, with big panoramic screens showing where callers are throughout the greater L.A. area, with Baylor seeming entirely on top of his high-pressure job.
This composure doesn’t last long, however. It turns out Joe has been separated from his ex-wife Emily and young daughter for six months. A sordid kidnapping and worse has taken place, there is mayhem, crying and screaming over the phone and malfeasance on the part of the supposed hero, who spends most of the running time trying to alternately advise, insist, cajole, intervene and otherwise play a role in the lives of several people in assorted states of distress.
The Guilty is not literally a one-man show but it more or less feels like it. As the situation worsens, the cracks in the man’s professional veneer start showing, then falling apart, as we witness a modern, technologically facilitated hell of his own making. It’s not a pretty sight.
Dealing with what could easily have felt like a cramped, stage-bound piece, Fuqua pushes to keep the pace quick, and his frequent cutting does lend a sense of propulsion to a piece that takes place in very tight quarters.
Gyllenhaal is the center of everything here and rivets viewer attention as his character desperately, with decreasing success, tries to cover his tracks. As is often the case with long withheld denouements, the ultimate revelations and reckonings are a bit overwrought, but they do take place quickly and are not the least stagy.
In the end, The Guilty is not a pleasant sit but it does move with force and speed and accomplishes what it sets out to do with a sense of style and purpose.
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