The Guilty is a Stripped Back but Lacking Drama

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Shot in just 11 days through strict Covid restrictions, Jake Gyllenhaal and director Antoine Fuqua once again collaborate on a remake of Gustav Möller’s 2018 debut feature Den skyldige, with mixed results. The script, adapted by crime drama maestro Nic Pizzolatto, maintains the same structure and narrative beats from the original, but lacks the propulsive energy that made Möller’s so gripping and entertaining.

The film centres around the LAPD officer Joe Baylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) who is benched to 911 response duty during a wildfire while he awaits trial for an incident while on duty, something that is giving him extreme anxiety. His night takes a turn when he receives a call from a kidnapped woman (Riley Keough) that he takes upon himself to save. While predominately a solo performance, the film is helped out greatly by quality voice acting performances from an ensemble of actors too long to mention that help ground the film that is limited in its ways to communicate the story.

The Guilty is all about limitations and the feeling of being trapped on the other side not being able to do enough to help, and in that regard, Fuqua largely succeeds by focusing on a more vulnerable lead performance than the original. This allows the audience to engage with Joe’s situation on a more emotional level which is Gyllenhaal’s bread and butter, and must’ve appealed to him about the role.

Unfortunately, too much of the film feels like a rushed first draft of a film, and not in the endearing two takes and that’s lunch Eastwood way. There is a serious lack of experimentation and innovation in a project that desperately calls for it, being handcuffed to one character on the phone for 90 minutes, that makes the 11-day shoot painfully apparent. Maybe it is unfair to ask for more than an average movie from that absurdly short turnaround from quality creators, but the work we’ve seen from Fuqua, Pizzolatto, and Gyllenhaal in the past warrants it.

Jake Gyllenhaal consumes every inch of the frame in The Guilty

Coming from the perspective of someone who has seen and enjoyed the original film which screened at MIFF in 2018, it is a more interesting exercise to dive into what is added in this work of adaptation. Firstly, thematically and narratively speaking, the story is actually improved by centring around an LAPD officer, as it adds an entire history for the audience that changes the context to many scenes, especially in comparison to the original story set in Denmark.

By setting the film in LA, the audience views the actions of Joe in a profoundly different way compared to Asger’s (the lead Jakob Cedergren in Den skyldige), as we immediately question his first response in situations of extreme pressure, namely leaping to violence as the only answer. Having this seed of doubt coupled with Gyllenhaal’s rapidly deteriorating mental state is where the film truly separates itself from the original, and if given more time, may have been where a more polished version of this movie would’ve put more consideration into.

The other aspect that centred the film’s setting is the California wildfire that is present throughout the film, but is never a true character that it needed to be. The roaring fire is only present in brief mentions by officers on the phone, as well as on the large monitors that bear down upon Joe’s desk, but add no actual weight to the story or emotionality Pizzolatto was going for and is another instance of the film greatly needing more time and care to expand its ideas.

While The Guilty is a commendable film and an interesting touch point in the recent history of US adaptations of European films, it is difficult to recommend this over the original film Den skyldige, even if it is only available to rent in Australia (it is currently streaming on Hulu). This is a film that may end up being merely a footnote in the collaborative journey between Gyllenhaal and Möller, as they adapt the graphic novel thriller Snow Blind, which will be Möller’s first English-language feature.

The Guilty is streaming on Netflix now.