Can you believe how long it’s been since Jake Gyllenhaal starred in a gritty crime film? After a few years of Westerns, black comedies and superhero joints, cinema’s favorite twitchy weirdo is back on the force in “The Guilty,” a remake of the German film “Den Skyldige” now streaming on Netflix. And if your though while watching “Nocturnal Animals,” “Prisoners,” “End of Watch,” “Source Code,” or “Zodiac,” was, “I just need more of that thing where Jake is on the edge of a mental breakdown,” then this is the film for you; set almost entirely in an LAPD dispatch office, “The Guilty” is 90 minutes of pure, uninterrupted Gyllenhaal.
He plays Joe Baylor, a police officer who clearly doesn’t belong at the 911 call terminal where he’s been stationed. Forearms bulging and head buzzed, Joe wears the required black polo and slacks like a petulant boy in his church clothes, and he rolls his eyes at the callers who request minor medical and police attention. Why is this street cop stuck behind a desk, bickering with everyone he comes across? Nic Pizzolatto’s (“True Detective”) script dolls out clues slowly, but viewers will come to suspect that Joe himself is guilty of something dark, something big enough to rattle the foundations of his personal as well as professional life.
But despite his own baggage, or perhaps because of it, Joe springs into action when he gets an emergency call from a kidnapping victim named Emily Lighton (Riley Keough). From his desk, Joe tries to piece together the story of Emily’s abduction, using only his phone and his computer to direct help her way. At first, his relentlessness stands in heroic contrast to the administrative red tape all around him. But as Joe blows past first the requirements and then the ethical limits of his job, we begin to question whether he’s part of the problem.
The script’s thoughtful musings on policing are well executed and should appeal to audience members who chafe at the moral absolutism of ACAB liberals and Blue Lives Matter conservatives. “We’re protectors,” Joe reassures Emily’s six-year-old daughter midway through the film. “We protect people.” It’s a statement reflecting the officer’s core sense of self, a promise that he has to believe. Yet when the girl responds that the police hurt people, something in Joe’s eye tells us he knows exactly what she’s talking about. Only after confronting the side of himself that he wishes wasn’t there, the side that simply cannot exist in anyone wearing the badge in a just society, can Joe hope to save Emily.
Pizzolatto, a veteran at building and releasing tension through series of clues and reveals, succeeds in crafting a taught one-room thriller. Viewers might not notice how stressed they are until, like Joe, they exhale and slump their heads in exhaustion following one of Emily’s calls. The short runtime means Pizzolatto can really keep the pedal to the metal, but even as he mixes in twisty plot points, he makes sure to tie everything back to Joe’s own inner struggle.
On the other hand, the film’s bottle-episode conceit doesn’t give director Antoine Fuqua much room for set pieces or flashy camera work. Fuqua, no stranger to gritty cop movies (he previously worked with Gyllenhaal on “End of Watch,”) wisely recognizes that his star is the most interesting scenery available and mostly shoots tight on Joe’s face. Gyllenhaal delivers a performance that, while firmly in his comfort zone, still manages to mesmerize. It’s his mastery of both shiftiness and vulnerability make Joe worthy of 90 minutes of screen time. Like many of Gyllenhaal’s characters, Joe doesn’t trust anyone to help him, and we can always see the gears turning in his head as he searches for ways to manipulate his coworkers into compliance. But we also believe it when the character loses control of his anger or sadness, when he cries or stumbles over linoleum to puke in a toilet.
In other words, Gyllenhaal’s Joe seems like the kind of guy who would desperately want to be a cop but definitely shouldn’t be a cop. Not everyone will want that type of hero in 2021, but “The Guilty” is close to a must-watch for those who can stomach the idea.
Watch it if: You’re a Gyllenhaal nut.
Skip it if: You can’t root for a troubled cop.