I suppose certain re-emergent echoes peek out from between the cracks of any actor’s career, should they have the longevity for it, but the primality of fire seems a recurring motif across the concerns of Jake Gyllenhaal. From exploding rockets in October Sky to the enraptured pyromania of Donnie Darko; the green flames licking Mysterio’s fingertips. Think on how he abandoned his family to fight fires in Paul Dano’s masterful Wildlife. Something keeps drawing Gyllenhaal back to the flame, and in Antoine Fuqua’s eminently simmering The Guilty, which just premiered at TIFF and is hitting Netflix on October 1st, flames snap and crackle at the film’s every edge.
It’s through the flames we must pass to even start the film, to reach the seemingly fire-proof black box where the entire film is set—it’s a-9-1-1 call center, as dark as night, every face lit entirely by the cool blue-green of computers … and oh yes, a wall of enormous screens facing everyone down with the non-stop broadcasting of the footage from a nearby California wildfire raging, ever raging, red and savage. Using the claustrophobia of COVID shooting restrictions to the film’s benefit, Fuqua makes this space feel sealed off from the world in the airless, Tupperware-container sense. Gyllenhaal’s call operator Joe at all times clutches his asthma inhaler like a third thumb, and the calls sweep in from panicked people in the streets and their homes, breathing in smoke and cinder.
We might as well be sitting inside an oven, the way The Guilty renders its atmosphere—the heat pressing in, ever hotter, from the walls at all times. And as its plot unfurls across Gyllenhaal’s face the sweat, in great beads, gather and storm down. A call comes in from a terrified woman (Riley Keough) who speaks in codes and riddles that Joe is forced to sort out. He realizes she’s been kidnapped by her ex, being driven to god knows where and god knows why, but the danger, as real as those ever-present flames flickering on the screens in front of us, has a ticking clock to it. Joe must figure out how to save this woman, her sealed off in her moving box on his screen and him trapped inside his own, before it’s too late.
What an excellent set-up for a thriller! Twice even! And The Guilty is indeed a remake of Danish director Gustav Möller’s 2018 film of the same title, which starred actor Jakob Cedergren in a one-man tour-de-force that kept itself entirely trained on him for its runtime. Him and the voices inside his head, anyway, each dictating his chess-like moves from afar, each seemingly logical step only further emotionally unraveling him in the process. It’s a role that would make a natural grab for any actor, but Gyllenhaal was especially smart to snatch it up as it plays hard to his strengths—his big-eyed sadness that slips so easily into unnerving intensity. We need an interesting and open face to stare at, but one that unsettles us a little, and he’s got that in spades.
The Guilty hinges entirely on Gyllenhaal’s performance and his performance is terrific: desperate, empathetic, entirely repugnant when necessary. He’s even terrific enough that he manages to elevate the sometimes rote theatrics of the storytelling. Perhaps the film needs to lean on genre convention to fill in the blanks for the action we’re not seeing onscreen, so in our heads we can play act the cop-show routines in his and our ears a little better? But the over-familiarity with some of the set-in-stone characters we always meet in this sorts of things, the gruff sergeants and the disappointed wives, does rob the film of some power. It often feels programmatic; doubly so if you’ve already seen the original. A sense of surprise is somewhat smothered by the flat types we encounter.
And yes, atmospherically, the aforementioned inhaler makes sense. The tension clots in our throats too! But I’m long past patience with asthma as a plot device, or its momentary defeat as a sign-post of emotional growth. In the absence of a shower wall to slide down, I suppose it’s the next worst thing. That said, The Guilty, for all its sense of been-there done-that boiling it down to an often familiar brew served in a somewhat atypical bowl, is peppered and spiced up enough by its leading man, and its sharp sense of atmospheric claustrophobia, to make for a fairly satisfying meal in the end. Go as always for Gyllenhaal, his crispy fried edges hot to the touch, and sustenance awaits.
The Guilty was screened as part of the 2021 TIFF film festival. It premieres on Netflix on October 1, 2021.