Directed by: Antoine Fuqua
Written by: Nic Pizzolatto
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Christina Vidal, Adrian Martinez, Riley Keogh and Peter Sarsgaard
Antoine Fuqua sets his film, itself a remake of a Danish film from 2018- during the California wildfires of that year. The first frame is of downtown Los Angeles with fires raging in the hills. Over it there is a title card that reads, The Guilty. This is a provocative start, and whether intentionally or not, alludes to the fact that maybe we are all guilty when it comes to climate change. However, this is not Fuqua’s raison d’etre with this English remake. The fires serve instead as an extended metaphor for the mind of the film’s central character Joe, played by Jake Gyllenhaal.
Joe, a police officer, has been relegated to a desk job, taking 911 emergency calls. One of the film's two central mysteries is why this happened to Joe? We know he is due in court the following day and he gets frosty receptions from his co-workers. He is lying to himself and others about the status of his marriage. As far as his wife is concerned they are separated for six months. Joe’s world is closing in around him, like the wildfires surrounding L.A. He then receives a call from a woman named Emily (Riley Keogh is a voice-only role). He quickly gathers that Emily has been kidnapped by her husband, Henry (Peter Sarsgaard in another voice-only role). After a quick search on the police computer system, Joe finds that Henry has spent twelve months in Los Angeles County Jail. He quickly becomes obsessed with tracking Emily down and bringing her home safely.
One’s enjoyment of this film depends on two main factors. Firstly, if a viewer has already seen the Danish original, one may find this film fairly redundant. The narrative doesn’t go anywhere the original doesn’t, with the possible exception of a softer and less ambiguous ending. Secondly, one’s tolerance for a film that is set in one location, of which there are many examples to varying degrees of success, the best of them being classics like Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men (1957) and Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948) or more recently Rodrigo Cortes’ Buried (2010) or Steven Knight’s Locke (2013). One must be aware that visually this film is mostly Jake Gyllenhaal, sitting at a desk, talking on the phone.
It doesn’t hurt however, that Jake Gyllenhaal is a fantastic actor. Gyllenhaal likes to change his physicality for every role, here he wears a buzz-cut, there is unacceptance, pain and anger in his angular, gaunt face. Even though the audience gets very little exposition on Joe’s background and circumstances one can sense that he is very uncomfortable with himself and his surroundings- he is asthmatic and the pollution from the fires isn’t doing his condition any good. It is also a very brave decision to make him so wholly unlikable. If he is not shouting at his colleagues he is dangerously close to an anxiety attack. The only time we see him being nice to anyone is him being duplicitous to get what he wants. The fatal flaw for this reviewer is Fuqua along with screenwriter Nic Pizzolatto (creator of True Detective (2014-2019)) give Joe a redemption that cannot be found in Gustav Moller’s film. It is a real misstep that screams American audiences must have some sliver of a happy ending- life can’t be that horrifying surely.
The Guilty is available on Netflix from Friday 1st October.