Everyone wants to catch the guilty but not everyone recognizes that same guilt within themselves.
Directed by Antoine Fuqua (Training Day), The Guilty takes place during the raging wildfires of Los Angeles. As his nightshift at the 911 desk winds down, frustrated and exhausted police officer Joe Bayler (Jake Gyllenhaal) gets a perilous phone call from a young woman (Riley Keough) who appears to be calling her child. Though he must get up early in the morning for a trial of his own misconduct, Joe ascertains that the young woman has been abducted and attempts to piece together her whereabouts from her cryptic clues. With few officers available due to the fires (not to mention the time of night), Joe feverishly works towards rescuing her. However, as the crime begins to unravel, Joe’s own inner demons begin to surface, blurring the lines between justice and vengeance.
In The Guilty, Antoine Fuqua delivers his signature intensity in a film the demands attention. Reteaming with his Southpaw star Gyllenhaal, Fuqua has never taken the easy approach with his filmmaking and Guilty is yet another example of his ability to tell stories that others simply cannot. Taking place entirely in the office of 911 dispatch, it is very difficult to maintain interest over the course of a full runtime in one location (and especially when the protagonist is spending the entire length of the film on the phone). From Phone Booth to Netflix’s Oxygen, many other films have attempted to make this format engaging but most of these examples begin to falter as the film drags on. (Ryan Reynold’s Buried may be one of the few exceptions.) Quite simply, the viewer expects (and usually requires) some sort of visual change in order to keep them focused for an extended runtime. Nevertheless, The Guilty somehow makes it work.
Much of this can be credited to the commitment of its star. Jake Gyllenhaal has always done intensity very, very well. With few exceptions, Gyllenhaal has always sought characters that he could sink his teeth into and, as a police officer about to stand trial, he fully dives into his performance. Let off the leash by Fuqua, this becomes yet another example of his incredible talent. As a result, anchored by a solid script and the strength of its lead, The Guilty may be one of the best examples of the genre. It simply grabs you from the opening scene and never truly let’s go.
However, what makes gives The Guilty its power is it subtext. The Guilty tells a story of a police officer who is about to face trial for an undisclosed crime and he does not want to be held accountable. At the same time though, so too does he also refuse to acknowledge his own mental instability. As he fights to save the life of a young woman, he also exposes his own flaws and brokenness. Joe is a man who is determined to save those who he feels deserve it yet is also willing to unleash hell on those that don’t. The pressures of the job have clearly broken his spirit and his judgement is compromised. (“Broken people save broken people,“ he is told by a coworker.) Although we never fully fully discover what his crimes may be, we certainly understand that he made the wrong decision when he caused them. His desire to do right has been overcome by his pension to do wrong.
As such, there’s a complexity to Joe that keeps the viewer at a distance. We believe that he is someone who wants to defend the innocent. He is passionate about bringing down ‘the bad guys’ and wants to be one of the ‘good guys’. His love for his estranged family is genuine.
However, Joe also proves that he’s not currently suited to wear the badge. Bored and frustrated by the average person, he has little interest in the everyday problems of everyday people. Then, when really difficult situations arise, he is far too willing to take matters into his own hands. While this sort of rogue cop has been celebrated on film for decades (ie. 24‘s Jack Bauer), The Guilty understands that this sort of rage-filled avenger simply has no place in real life. There’s an inner rage and hatred against ‘scumbags’ that fuels Joe’s actions, making him a toxic presence in the community. In other words, his ‘justice’ can just as easily become an outlet for his own mental health issues. In this way, The Guilty acknowledges the importance of the police yet also calls for accountability and health of those who don the uniform.
Bold and gripping, The Guilty is a film that needs to be experienced. With skill and substance, Fuqua takes a genre that rarely works and delivers an entertaining and thrilling film that keeps the viewer on the edge of their seat. Even so, the real value of the film is its question of valor which resonates deeply with the questions of police accountability today. While Joe may be a man who wants to not be Guilty, it’s also clear that he’s far from innocent.
The Guilty is available on Netflix on October 1st, 2021