Jake Gyllenhaal doesn’t need a performance vehicle to prove he’s one of the best actors of his generation, but that’s exactly what he gets in The Guilty, a dramatic thriller from director Antoine Fuqua that’s being distributed by Netflix. At only 40 years of age, Gyllenhaal has more than proven his range, avoiding being pigeonholed by taking on roles that are challenging in different ways. Brokeback Mountain, Zodiac, and Nightcrawler all reveal different facets of Gyllenhaal’s abilities as a performer, so it’s no surprise that when given the opportunity to command the entirety of the screentime himself in The Guilty, he delivers a turn that is compellingly complex, taking the audience on an emotional roller coaster that results in one of his best performances yet.
The Guilty is a remake of the 2018 Danish film of the same name, and it features the same basic premise. Gyllenhaal (who also produces the film) plays Sergeant Bill Miller, a Los Angeles police officer who has been assigned desk duty as a 911 operator for reasons that later become clear. The story takes place over the course of his final evening on duty, when he receives a call from a distressed woman who has been abducted and he works the phones to track her down before it’s too late.
To say more would be to spoil the twists and turns of the film, but suffice it to say Miller’s character is tested by this one phone call, and the film builds to an emotional conclusion that provides added resonance for the story being told here.
Save for a few other 911 operators in the building, Gyllenhaal’s is almost always the only face we see on screen, as he acts opposite various voices on the other end of the phone (with excellent voice-only work by the likes of Ethan Hawke, Riley Keough, and Da’Vine Joy Randolph). This isn’t a unique acting scenario – aside from the Danish original, Tom Hardy notably delivered an excellent performance as a man making various phone calls in 2013’s underrated Locke – but Gyllenhaal is such a compelling performer that you quickly forget you’re just watching a guy talk on the phone for 90 minutes. The layers of his performance are dense, and by the film’s end you realize every acting choice he’s made has been deliberate. It’s all part of a whole, and Gyllenhaal so fully inhabits this character that he runs the risk of making a truly difficult task come off as easy. His performance in The Guilty is maybe not as showy or shocking as Nightcrawler or Zodiac, but it’s no less challenging.
But The Guilty is not just some of the best work of Gyllenhaal’s career – it’s also director Antoine Fuqua’s best film in years. The director behind Training Day and the Magnificent Seven remake takes a stripped down and character-centric approach to the story, deftly weaving stakes and thematic resonance into a story with only one person on camera for the bulk of the running time. Fuqua never allows the audience to lose interest, finding dynamic ways to shift the visual palette or cinematography that mirror the circumstances of the film’s lead character. Everything serves Miller’s emotional journey, and the fact that Fuqua directed much of the film over FaceTime from a van just outside the soundstage after coming into contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19 makes it all the more impressive.
The Guilty doesn’t necessarily offer anything groundbreaking or wholly unique, but it’s a story worth telling and told well. Screenwriter Nic Pizzloatto, who is most known for creating and running the HBO series True Detective, crafts a delicate and propulsive screenplay that doesn’t rely on cheap thrills but instead keeps the story grounded in theme, making it all the more impactful once you reach the end. Having not seen the Danish original I can’t speak to how much of that is due to the source material, but what Pizzolatto, Fuqua, and Gyllenhaal have crafted here is undeniably a really good film.
There’s excitement in watching The Guilty knowing that Jake Gyllenhaal is capable of this, Spider-Man: Far From Home, and Velvet Buzzsaw all within the span of a few years. So many performers of his stature and, frankly, good looks get bogged down by the weight of external pressures or industry expectations, but at every turn Gyllenhaal chooses the most interesting route and makes a meal out of it.
For Gyllenhaal’s performance alone, The Guilty is worth your while, but that Fuqua and Pizzolatto are also able to craft a compelling, taut, emotional thriller that touches on everything from policing to mental illness make it a must-see.
The Guilty will be released on Netflix on September 24th.
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