Who is (or are) “The Guilty” referenced in Antoine Fuqua’s tense new Netflix thriller, adapted from the 2018 Danish film of the same name? The title obviously matters, since the “Training Day” director kept it. Fact is, Fuqua changes precious little in what amounts to a pretty direct remake of a nervy, adrenaline-rush crisis-management movie, one that tracks a more-complex-than-it-seems abduction from the limited perspective of a conflicted emergency services phone operator.
Transferred from Copenhagen to Los Angeles, where it unfolds in the midst of a massive wildfire outbreak, “The Guilty” stars Jake Gyllenhaal and barely anyone else. (Riley Keough, Paul Dano and Ethan Hawke lend their voices, but it’s Gyllenhaal’s big blue eyes we’re watching for the better part of 90 minutes.) That’s the high-concept hook Fuqua’s adaptation more than satisfies: The camera hardly ever leaves Gyllenhaal, who plays Joe Baylor, a cop who’s been temporarily demoted from patrolling the streets to answering calls at a 911 communications center.
While the other operators do their adequate, professional best, Joe goes above and beyond. If a cat got stuck in a tree, you can imagine him dispatching the entire fire department to save it (and don’t forget, they’re plenty busy dealing with the wildfires raging on the TV news screens that make up one wall of this otherwise nondescript boiler room), or else transferring the call to his iPhone and driving down there to rescue it himself. Watching, you can’t help wishing that U-verse phone operators were this dedicated, rather than putting you on hold for 45 minutes and still failing to resolve your issue.
Joe craves action, and being stuck at a desk isn’t about to stop him from tracking down the bad guys. Make no mistake: This is an action movie, even if the action is largely confined to Joe’s fingertips: the panicky way he picks up a call, the speed-dial buttons he pushes to ring California Highway Patrol or the Los Angeles Police Department. His digits are constantly fidgeting. As Joe, Gyllenhaal sweats, he swears, he furrows his brow and flexes his arms. You’re supposed to be watching his face, but even his triceps are acting — or distracting, as the case may be. If screenwriter Nic Pizzolatto could have figured out a way for Joe to take his shirt off, he surely would.
But “The Guilty” remains a largely faithful retelling of director Gustav Möller’s calling-card debut, a breakout of the 2018 Sundance Film Festival that was selected as Denmark’s submission (and later shortlisted) in the Oscar international feature race. The project originated as a tight piece of writing: a sly single-location stunt that puts us in the high-stress position of hearing but not seeing a frightening domestic abuse situation as it unfolds. It kicks off with a distress call from an abducted woman (here, Keough’s Emily) pretending to speak to her 6-year-old daughter, and by allowing us to hear both sides of the conversation, spins a whole white-knuckle scenario in our imaginations.
The less audiences know about the twists in store, the better. Like “Buried” or “Searching,” the movie makes the most of its limitations. But there’s a major miscalculation in the way Gyllenhaal plays it, so different from the “keep calm and carry on” energy of Jakob Cedergren’s performance in the earlier film. Fuqua doesn’t approach this as a business-as-usual 911 call but as a full-blown life-or-death emergency. Los Angeles may be burning in the background, but Joe Baylor has chosen to treat the kidnapping with the urgency of a “24” season finale.
Why is he so committed to resolving this particular crisis? Why does he insist, when speaking with Emily’s daughter, on telling the worried girl that police “protect people”? The movie is titled “The Guilty,” remember, and Fuqua doubles down on the notion that Joe’s conscience is in turmoil and that this job — heck, this call — could make a difference in deciding the court hearing at which he’s scheduled to appear the next day.
Society needs police, this film’s politically engaged subtext seems to be saying, but what happens when the social contract breaks down? (In one moment, Joe glimpses what appears to be a Black Lives Matter protest on TV, and winces at the sight of a burning squad car.) Yes, police are supposed to help people, but sometimes they don’t — more often than the system is willing to admit. And how do they earn back the public’s trust when that happens? Best intentions aside, maybe Joe Baylor isn’t a clear-cut hero cop. Maybe Emily’s emergency isn’t as straightforward as it sounds.
Like Gene Hackman’s character in Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Conversation” — a sound engineer who invents an elaborate conspiracy theory around a few words spoken by the couple on whom he’s eavesdropping — Joe could be interpreting the situation to suit his own agenda, responding to what he needs to hear in order to redeem himself. That’s a complex twist on your typical cop movie, bringing layers to “The Guilty” that make it more than just a very special episode of “CSI.” Gyllenhaal goes deep with the character, who’s every bit as tortured as the flashier ones he played in “Velvet Buzzsaw” and “Nightcrawler.”
Gyllenhaal’s impressive, but “The Guilty” almost certainly would have been more effective if he’d dialed down the intensity a bit. We see Joe wound up like this, and we don’t think, “Oh wow, some cops really take their role seriously” — we think, “This guy’s mental.” Even with his hands tied at this desk job, Joe can still pull in favors from his cop buddies to bust down doors and order street closures. Like one of those young Army recruits, remote-controlling lethal drones from halfway around the world, he’s got more power than makes sense. And the idea that all the excitement of this one night might lead him to make the call he does in his own life pushes the fantasy just one step too far.