THE GUILTY ★★½
Netflix (91 minutes) M
Topical but not too topical, Antoine Fuqua’s The Guilty takes its time getting around to any direct acknowledgement of the COVID era. All the same, this slicked-up remake of a 2018 Danish thriller stands as the latest example of the cinema of social distancing, offering its producer-star Jake Gyllenhaal the chance to put on a fairly strenuous one-man-show.
The pandemic aside, the mood summoned by Fuqua (Training Day) and screenwriter Nic Pizzolatto (True Detective) is sufficiently apocalyptic. A portentous Biblical quote leads into an aerial image of wildfires blazing across Los Angeles, while indoors one maverick cop with a Ventolin inhaler does what he can to make sense of it all.
This is Gyllenhaal’s character Joe Baylor, a sergeant who’s been busted down to desk duty for misdeeds not immediately spelled out. What we do gather, as he answers a series of emergency calls, is that this is a man who could crack at any moment – especially once he gets wind of an apparent kidnapping in progress, a case that may somehow parallel his own murky past.
The conceit of the film is that we never cut away from Joe at the office, a stylised space characterised by dark reflective surfaces, venetian blinds that lend themselves to mood lighting, and banks of computer monitors that replace more direct windows onto the outside world. When the dialogue invokes the image of an aquarium, it’s a hint about how we’re meant to see Joe: as a figure operating in seclusion, way down below the surface.
Some of the people on the other end of the line are played by well-known names, including Ethan Hawke and Riley Keough. But in practice they’re just voices, whose circumstances have to be imagined by Joe and by us; his colleagues a few metres away are made to seem still more remote, often literally inaudible and out-of-focus.
Left to his own devices, Gyllenhaal goes through the acting equivalent of a full-body workout: ranting, sweating, smirking, hanging his head, swivelling on his chair and testing how many shades of anguish he can convey with his big hollow eyes.
Nicolas Cage as a paramedic in Martin Scorsese’s Bringing Out the Dead would be a roughly appropriate comparison, although there’s no trace of the gonzo energy which Gyllenhaal, like Cage, can summon on occasion. Rather, the spirit of the performance is one of grim commitment, suggesting not for the first time that Gyllenhaal may feel he’s overdue for an Oscar.