TIFF 2021: ‘The Guilty’ is a Heavy-Handed Remake of a Better Thriller

Antoine Fuqua’s version is thrilling but ultimately redundant.

TIFF

By Meg Shields and Anna Swanson · Published on September 14th, 2021

This review of Antoine Fuqua’s  The Guilty is part of our ongoing press coverage of the Toronto International Film Festival. From reviews to interviews to recap lists, follow along for all things TIFF 2021.


Directed by Antoine Fuqua and scripted by True Detective’s Nic Pizzolatto, The Guilty is the latest Hollywood effort to yank a Nordic thriller stateside. A mostly beat-for-beat remake of Gustav Möller’s sleek, critically-acclaimed 2018 film of the same name (a.k.a. Den Skyldige), the adaptation introduces a distinctly American flavor full of ambition but lacking in its execution.

Jake Gyllenhaal stars in the new version as Joe Bayler, an LAPD officer who’s been demoted to dispatch duty ahead of an upcoming disciplinary hearing. While he’s clearly frustrated by the step-down, Joe perks up after a woman calls in and covertly informs him that she’s been kidnapped. Joe’s investigative instincts kick in, and from his desk, he begins to plan a rescue op. But as more of the details come to light about the abduction, Joe’s personal demons resurface, and the already tense situation starts to spiral.

The weight of the movie’s success is undeniably resting on Gyllenhaal’s shoulders. As the actor has proven time and time again, he’s more than capable of some heavy lifting. Indeed, he effectively carries himself with the tension and hostility of a hot-headed cop who would rather be doing anything else. Third-act developments necessitate some pivots in Gyllenhaal’s performance. And while the shift is lacking grace narratively, he certainly puts his best effort into sustaining consistency in the character.

While The Guilty is visually bound to Joe’s desk, the voice cast is rather expansive. Riley Keough, Peter Sarsgaard, and Ethan Hawke populate the off-screen space at various times as characters speaking to Joe on the phone. Perhaps it’s the familiarity of these actors and what we expect from them as performers, but the shorthand of even just their voices effectively paints a picture of who is on the other end of the line.

This is ultimately a movie constrained by its initial premise. The kind of restrictive storytelling that it’s working with can sustain a taut 90-minute thriller. If it were pushed to a longer runtime, the plot would have surely become increasingly convoluted. The choice to keep it lean is the right one. But it also means that character development for Joe becomes increasingly heavy-handed without the time to give some intense thematic ideas room to breathe.

The self-imposed restrictions do deserve praise. The Guilty marks another entry in the thinly populated broadcast thriller genre. It is not easy to stage a film where the majority of the inciting incidents are heard but not seen. And it is even harder to commit to such a limitation for the vast majority of a feature. We say “the vast majority” because while 99-percent of the on-screen action here is contained within the walls of the 911 dispatch center, the movie does betray its own rule at several points.

In two isolated incidents, Joe and the dispatch center fade away and are seemingly replaced with a vision of what is happening in real-time on the other end of the call. These scenes — if we want to call them that — are brief, hazy, and limited. Furthermore, it is left ambiguous as to whether or not these are accurate glimpses into what is taking place or if we’re being treated to flashes of what Joe is imagining.

Either way, in adding nothing that we can’t easily imagine ourselves, these scenes are unnecessary at best. At worst, they represent a fundamental lack of trust in the audience’s ability to conjure such visions for ourselves, which is ostensibly the point of adopting this restrictive format in the first place.

This quibble aside — and considering that very few broadcast thrillers are as committed as The Guilty, it is a quibble — the movie does a respectable job of pulling off a 90-minute story told from one end of a telephone line. This is, ultimately, where it succeeds as a remake, by honoring the conceit of its predecessor — again, 99-percent of the time. By staying true to the beats of the magic trick, the movie manages to share in some of its progenitor’s success.

All told, The Guilty does a lot right. The movie is tightly paced, engaging, and manages to weave tension and character depth out of its narrow field of vision. But everything it does right can be found in equal and more often greater measure in Möller’s original 2018 film. So the question becomes what, exactly, is this remake doing to justify its own existence?

Making a Hollywood movie about a demoted cop on the cusp of a disciplinary hearing is a bit of a gamble. For The Guilty to be narratively satisfying, we have to buy into Joe’s heroics and development. But in the context of the LAPD, this is a hefty ask of audiences. Regarding Joe’s arc, it is a double-edged sword where Fuqua and his team would be damned if they did and damned if they didn’t.

Ultimately, the solution to confronting challenging ideas in fiction isn’t to skirt past the contentious issues but to face them. However, in order to successfully confront the myriad issues around policing, a movie needs time and careful consideration. And in the end, when working in the format of a taut thriller such as this, that doesn’t seem possible.

Instead, the movie seems to want to have its cake and eat it too. The goal is to deliver a slightly gimmicky but well-executed chamber drama. At times it buckles under the self-imposed pressure to confront issues that could never be boiled down to the arc of a single character. For the most part, The Guilty delivers formally, but thematically it falls apart.

Related Topics: Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF)

Meg Shields is the humble farm boy of your dreams and a senior contributor at Film School Rejects. She currently runs three columns at FSR: The Queue, How’d They Do That?, and Horrorscope. She is also a curator for One Perfect Shot and a freelance writer for hire. Meg can be found screaming about John Boorman’s ‘Excalibur’ on Twitter here: @TheWorstNun. (She/Her).

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