I’m sure Taylor Swift and her fans don’t like Jake Gyllenhaal. There was a joke on Family Guy comparing him to Jared Leto and how he probably a dick in real life. As the son of director Stephen Gyllenhaal, he’s entered into his fourth decade of appearing in movies, starting with a role as Billy Crystal’s son in City Slickers (even though I’m sure he had a non-speaking role in Goodfellas as one of the kids who discovers the couple murdered in the pink Cadillac).
Gyllenhaal’s character picked up after Donnie Darko and October Sky, the latter of which I didn’t care for mainly on account of Chris Cooper’s nagging role as a father and how he condescendingly calls his son “Homer.” It was an fascinating movie about the space race but it’s hard to sit through because you’re waiting for him to punch his father in the mouth.
After Brokeback Mountain, he got an Oscar nomination and the clout and had a series of ups and downs. He’s still a risky actor taking on roles working with impressive directors when he could just as easily phone it in for a huge paycheck for big-budget movies.
The Guilty released Oct. 1, 2021 is directed by Antoine Fuqua and written by Nic Pizzolatto and starring Gyllenhaal. It’s a triple treat of a movie that could’ve gone wrong but works because not only does it know what to do but what NOT to do. Set mostly in confined spaces in a 911 call center, Gyllenhaal plays Joe Baylor, a LAPD officer who has been more or less demoted to handling emergency calls pending the outcome of a criminal hearing. We don’t know what’s going on at first, but he’s getting calls from a newspaper reporter on his cell phone.
Having to work the graveyard shift as wildfires are spreading over southern California, Joe doesn’t want to be at the call center. He handles the phone calls with lack of sympathy or concern. His co-worker, Manny (Adrian Martinez) and supervisor Sgt. Denise Wade (Christina Vidal) don’t think too much of him and see him as just another troublesome cop working the phones until he is “cleared” of charges.
Then, he gets a call from a woman Emily Lighton (Riley Keough) who talks to him as if she’s talking to a child. Realizing the woman is in trouble, Joe tries to work with her and gets a description of a white van she has been abducted in. But he hears a man’s voice and the call is disconnected.
A stop by a California Highway Patrol trooper of a white van is not the one. And as he works with others in law enforcement, mostly over the phones, he grows more concerned. A CHP dispatcher (voiced by Da’Vine Joy Randolph) argues with him over the severity as there are other matters in the area that are just important as personnel is stretched thin. A former supervisor, Sgt. Bill Miller (voiced by Ethan Hawke) offers some support and encouragement as Joe is scheduled to appear in court the next day.
Joe is able to call Emily’s house where she talks with her six-year-old daughter, Abby (voiced by Christina Montoya) who is concerned because Emily left the house with her father, Henry Fisher (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard) who Joe learns has a criminal record for assault. Abby is able to give Joe Henry’s phone number.
He gets his former partner, Rick (voiced by Eli Goree) to go to Henry’s apartment while at the same time getting officers to respond to Emily’s house to check on Abby and her brother, Oliver, who Joe has been informed is sleeping in another room. Rick is stressed out as he’s been drinking as he is worried about appearing in court the next day.
The phone call to Abby reminds Joe of his own strained relationship with his own daughter, seen only through a screensaver photo on his phone. Unfortunately, Joe’s wife, Jess (Gillian Zinser) isn’t in the mood for being awoken in the middle of the night. I don’t think I need to say they’re not living under the same roof.
Fuqua has made a lot of action crime thrillers but the action here is in the conversations Joe has with people at the call center and on the phone calls. Some have said it’s a one-man performance, but I disagree. It reminded me of All the President’s Men in its tone and delivery as a conversation with a person on a phone can be tense and we can learn more through a person’s tone without them actually saying something.
Gyllenhaal pulls off a great performance as an unlikeable person who isn’t always a great guy and has done bad things, but this could be his one moment to do the right thing. When Abby tells Joe about how she’s been told the police are the bad people, the camera focuses on Gyllenhaal’s face as he says the police are there to protect people. You can just tell with this scene that Fuqua is foreshadowing something. Also you can see how Gyllenhaal’s Joe no long really believes the motto “To protect and serve.”
What happens later I’m not going to say. There is a twist, but it’s earned, mostly for the performances by Sarsgaard and Keough who manage in their phone calls to convey a lot of acting and emotion. Keough is the biggest surprise. The last thing I saw her in was Zola in which she played the stereotypical “white homegirl who talks and acts ‘black'” to the point she’d make Woah Vicky roll her eyes. For an actress who is the daughter of Lisa Marie Presley and granddaughter of Elvis Presley and Priscilla Presley, she’s probably gotten a lot of criticism just for being who she is. Even though she doesn’t appear on screen, she makes Emily a three-dimensional character and makes us care about her, even when we find out what’s really going on.
This movie was filmed over 11 days in November of 2020 with Fuqua, himself, having to be isolated from the cast and crew as he had tested positive for Covid-19. The irony of a filmmaker having to deliver all his directions while looking at monitors and talking to people on radios and cell phones probably makes this movie work. There’s a feeling of self-isolation among Joe as he’s most seen by himself. His co-workers don’t want to be around him. His estranged wife doesn’t want him to call. He’s by himself in more ways than literal.
Eventually, we do learn what Joe has done to get himself in trouble and what he must do next. Joe suffers from asthma and the wildfires are affecting his lungs. And figuratively, you can look at the wildfires as how lies spread and the damage they cause. This was based on a 2018 Danish movie Den Skldige, which is also The Guilty. I understand like always, people will prefer the foreign-made original than the American remake. But Gyllenhaal pulls off one of his best roles here. I wouldn’t be surprised if he gets an Oscar nomination and possible win.
Fuqua and Pizzolatto (who created the HBO show True Detective) know how to deliver a movie that keeps you wondering what will happen next. And at just 90 minutes with credits, it doesn’t linger too much on useless plot exposition. Netflix reported 69 million household watched this movie in its first month and it was top rated across the world. It was a hit that Netflix was needed after a dismal year which means they’ll probably be promoting it for Oscar gold.
Considering that 2021 might be one of the most lackluster years for movies in a while, it’s refreshing to see a movie like this.
What do you think? Please comment.