Movie review: The Guilty

(image courtesy IMDb (c) Netflix)

Remakes are interesting creations.

The first question you have to ask yourself when you watch one, is did it need to be made in the first place, especially if, in the instance of The Guilty, starring Jake Gyllenhaal as disgraced police officer Joe Baylor, it is widely agreed that the predecessor film was a brilliant piece of tense storytelling in and of itself?

In one sense, asking yourself if it needed to be remade is largely redundant since the remade version exists and, a Thanos snap in the cinematic world aside. it is not suddenly going to wink from existence.

So, you have this remake which exists regardless of your perception of the film that inspired it; the next question then is does this remake function as a clever piece of inventive filmmaking on its own merits? (That is considerably easier to answer if, like this reviewer, you have not watched the original.)

As far as 2021 iteration of The Guilty goes, the answer is a guarded “yes”.

For the most part, it functions well as tense tale of one 911 call centre-bound policeman’s fight to save a woman who is, as far as he can ascertain from pieced together and often rushed and highly-emotional phone calls, been abducted by her estranged husband who is driving her in a white van along an L.A. freeway as massive wildfires encroach from all sides.

A single phonecall, taken by a man who is on the edge thanks to a looming court date the next day when his guilt or innocence over a shooting that resulted in a suspect’s death will be decided, sends the film on a headlong rush into a narrative that exists as much in what is not said as what is.

Keep in mind that much of the information that drives the decisions of this troubled cop, who is also grappling with the end of his marriage and loss of access to his daughter, is coming from people in the midst of an emotionally traumatic event who are not exactly giving full context.

Not that unduly troubles Joe who, clearly needing to save someone if he can’t save himself or his career and marriage, or importantly, the person who’s life he took, goes all out to save the caller on the line, Emily (Riley Keough) who is searingly evocative in the role of a woman who appears to have been kidnapped by her her husband Henry (Peter Sarsgaard) who gives every indication that he is your typical violent ex bent on revenge.

But is he and is Emily quite the victim she makes out?

Much of the pleasure (if it can be called that; it’s tense as hell much of the time) of watching The Guilty comes from trying to divine exactly what is going on in a film that exists in the cracks between words and conversation and which is propelled at emotionally frenetic speed by a man close to breaking from the extreme pressure he is under.

Granted, the pressure is less inflicted but Joe is something wrestling with the awfulness of what he has done and who subconsciously seeks redemption by going all out to try and save Emily.

While the performance by Gyllenhaal is mesmerisingly, grippingly good, with the actor swinging seamlessly between abusive haranguing of call centre colleagues such as Manny (Adrian Martinez) and Sergeant Denise Wade (Christina Vidal) and of colleagues such as CHP dispatcher (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) and his old sergeant Bill Miller (Ethan Hawke), and exquisitely tender empathy and concern for Emily and her left-at-home-alone frightened six-year-old daughter Abby (Christiana Montoya), there are a great many times when he comes across as simply a terrible human being.

That is not necessarily the sole fault of Gyllenhaal who, as noted, is largely exemplary and profoundly moving in his role; rather the screenplay, by Nic Pizzolatto, seems unable to decide if Joe is a decent man driven to emotional darkness and despair or, for want of a better term, a complete dick who was difficult and nasty before and is even more so now.

Joe does admit on one call to a colleague that he is furiously angry a lot of the time and that his shooting of a member of the public, and his treatment of people whose help he currently needs, is largely borne from that, but clearly he is also so invested in Emily’s plight, to an almost unhealthy if understandable degree, that he seems to have lost all sight of basic, healthy human interaction.

The problem with The Guilty and which deleteriously affects enjoyment of the film overall, is that Joe’s mood swings get significantly in the way of liking him as a character which in turn leaves you wondering just what is driving his manic drive to get Emily out of danger.

His indeterminate status as a character isn’t helped by a fuzzy narrative that tries to be more than a single scene, largely single actor, layering complexity and emotional uncertainty on top of a swiftly shifting sand of what we know or think we know, but succeeds only in overly complicating what should be a simple taut piece of immersive storytelling.

Sometimes leaving something as a relatively straightforward proposition is the right choice; not everything has to be a thousand kinds of complicated humanity on a knife edge and by giving Joe myriad different reasons to be close to losing it all, The Guilty sullies its overall impact.

Having said that, the film is by and large a good watch, understanding that there is something captivating about will they/won’t they storytelling, especially when someone’s life hangs in the edge at a remove and there is nothing, bar some badass, ill-tempered coordination, that the protagonist can do about it.

Joe, for all his competing flaws and foibles, is, it emerges in the final act, a decent man who has lost his way, enveloped in his own rage and disempowerment to the point where he has lost his grip on emotional sanity, his career, his family and any sense of life well lived.

But as the final harrowing scenes evocatively show, he is the sort of person who, when the truth of who he is and what he is done catches up with him, is willing to take some pretty major steps to deal with them, leaving The Guilty as a film that is much an invigoratingly intense exploration of broken, lost humanity as it is a race to save someone who perhaps needs saving less than the person desperately trying to be her saviour.

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