Every time we’re ready to go all in, they push us out.
“The Guilty” features a star-power performance by Jake Gyllenhaal, crisp and economic direction from Antoine Fuqua (who previously teamed up with Gyllenhaal on the underrated boxing flick “The Southpaw”) and has first-class source material, as it’s a remake of the 2018 Danish gem of the same name. Alas, something gets lost in the translation, and what should be an engrossing, claustrophobic thriller keeps on throwing us for a loop and has us asking questions about logic when we should be so immersed in the story we don’t care about the plot holes.
Save for one brief sequence, the 85-minute run of “The Guilty” takes place within the LAPD Emergency Service Division, where Gyllenhaal’s Joe Baker is working the late shift against a backdrop of TV monitors displaying the chaos enveloping the Los Angeles area as wildfires rage out of control. We eventually learn Joe, a police detective, is off the streets because he’s facing charges about deadly serious misconduct — and the court hearing is tomorrow, and doesn’t it seem odd the Department would have Joe working such a stressful post, especially on the eve of such a huge day in his life? That’s the first indication “The Guilty” is going to bend reality to suit the story, but not the last.
With Fuqua’s cameras following Joe around in a docudrama style, with a myriad of closeups of Joe’s face, his eyes, his mouth, as he navigates through an endless tsunami of emergency calls, it’s apparent Joe is under a great deal of stress — on the job and in his personal life, as he’s been estranged from his wife for six months and he misses his daughter, which leads to Joe making such stupid decisions as calling the house at 2 a.m. and asking his wife if he can speak to their child. No, Joe. She’s asleep. Jeez. Besides, you’re not supposed to be on your personal phone, you’re supposed to be manning those incoming 911 calls.
On one such call, Joe ascertains that a young woman named Emily (voiced by Riley Keough) has been abducted by her ex-husband Henry (Peter Sarsgaard), leaving their 6-year-old daughter and infant son home alone. (We never see any of the characters who appear via phone conversations.) With Joe continually looking at a photo of his own daughter so we don’t miss the symbolic heaviness of this situation, he embarks on a frantic mission to determine Emily’s whereabouts and also contact Emily’s daughter to assure her everything will be all right.
Along the way, Joe snaps at his co-workers, gets into heated arguments with a California Highway Patrol dispatcher (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), asks his old friend Sgt. Bill Miller (Ethan Hawke) to break the law on his behalf, and is so obviously on the verge of his own meltdown that it feels like someone should be calling 911 to report HIM.
“The Guilty” wants to make a statement about a man who’s trying to save himself through saving others, but the message is delivered with all the subtlety of a frantic 911 call.