TIFF Review – The Guilty (2021)
The Guilty (2021)
Director Antoine Fuqua makes a return to the subject of police in The Guilty (2021). Along with Nic Pizzolatto, the two wrote a script based on the original Danish film from 2018 of the same name. The duo Americanized the story and applied it to current events presently facing police enforcement all over the country.
The Guilty follows Joe Baylor (Jake Gyllenhaal), an LAPD police officer placed on duty in the 911 call center due to a suspension for an incident on the job. Still itching to get back to being a police officer, Joe believes through his actions that the 911 call center is beneath his talents and a waste of time. He answers calls flippantly and unsympathetically. His attitude changes when a woman named Emily (Riley Keough) calls in and, after listening to her, realizes that someone has kidnapped her. The rest of the film rests on that first call and what transpires after the call ends. Joe can step into his “talents” as a police officer and do the detective work to try to help and save Emily.
Whether because of COVID-19 or it’s just how the script is written, The Guilty has a limited physical cast. The camera is on Jake Gyllenhaal 95 percent of the time, including tight camerawork that focuses on his face. What this leaves the audience is a film that relies solely on the emotional performance of one actor. There are no special effects or cutaways to other characters that Joe is speaking to on the phone. There are brief, blurry scenes away from the call center that I interpreted as Joe imagining what is happening on the other end of the phone. Gyllenhaal has the emotional depth and acting ability to carry this film, and with another less talented actor at the forefront, it would not have worked. He did not have any physical cues from actors to base his reactions on. I would hope that he was able to talk to his actors in real-time on the phone, rather than just someone reading a script off-camera because if it was the latter, I am even more impressed than before.
That is not to say that the audio performances of the other actors are less important than Gyllenhaal’s. They possibly were able to interact with Gyllenhaal, but given their roles being audio only, there is a greater burden on them to make their surroundings and situations feel real. It isn’t until the credits roll that the audience realizes that several great actors participated in this film.
As Fuqua stated in his pre-screening statement, there is a purposeful inclusion of police misconduct in the film. Joe’s suspension from being a police officer is due to a decision he made while on duty and its outcome. We learn that the final ruling on this incident will be the next day, adding to the pressure and stress of Joe. Joe has an anger problem, and it is evident early on in the film. If anything poses a challenge that he cannot fix, there is an outburst. These are not the kind of behaviors a cop should possess.
There is a theme of redemption towards the end of The Guilty; we can own up to our mistakes and take responsibility for our actions, even in the face of consequences, which we don’t see in the numerous cases of police brutality and misconduct. We are human and can judge a book by its cover and make assumptions based on what we are experiencing before getting all the facts. Joe struggles with all of these things. Through his experience with Emily and helping her through her ordeal, he realizes his struggles and wrongdoings and wants to change them. Fuqua and Gyllenhaal have constructed an intimate drama grappling with serious problems but have avoided it being an in-your-face film preaching the obvious. While the ending is a bit too good to be true, it shows that people can learn from their mistakes and do better.