Remaking foreign films is a tricky proposition and always seems like a bit of a cheat. The notion those involved are simply copying a previous project is a hard one to overcome.
So, when it was announced that Jake Gyllenhaal was to star in the 2018 Danish thriller “The Guilty,” I was a bit skeptical. I shouldn’t have been, as this proves to be every bit as good as the original, a claustrophobic production that’s driven by the star’s performance and director Antoine Fuqua’s ability to avoid this one-setting story from becoming a static exercise in tedium.
Gyllenhaal is Joe, a hot-head patrol officer who’s been assigned to the dispatch center to answer 911 calls. This is a position he’s not suited for, having been sent there instead of suspended over an incident that occurred while he was pounding the beat some months ago. Just what Joe did and why he’s required to go to trial over it the next day is slowly revealed.
Qualities that make him a good cop (a sense of dedication and the desire to help) and those that make him a ticking time bomb (his impulsivity and willingness to ignore procedure) come into play when he gets a call from a woman (voice of Riley Keough) who’s been kidnapped.
Claiming she’s been taken by her husband (voice of Peter Sarsgaard) and is uncertain of their destination, he tells Joe what she can (they are in a white van, headed east). Using these vague clues, the cop alerts highway patrol officers in an effort to find the frantic woman.
As the minutes tick by and the woman’s situation becomes more dire, Joe’s anxiety increases and he becomes more frantic, snapping at co-workers, always on the edge of melting down as every avenue he takes to help the abducted woman proves fruitless.
This is an actor’s showcase as Gyllenhaal is required to carry the film, reacting to the voices of nearly all his castmates. Whether they be criminals, victims or fellow officers, Joe interacts with them via phone calls. This is the sort of challenge good actors — and those eager to produce some Oscar bait — long for as it puts them front and center, responsible for much of the emotional tenor of the movie.
Credit screenwriter Nic Pizzolatto for providing numerous small moments that allow us to see Joe as more than a one-note villain. The character is on edge from the start, fraying throughout until he reaches his breaking point. These big moments are easy to play, but Gyllenhaal wisely takes a different approach to the film’s quieter scenes, allowing us to see the character’s humanity.
Yes, he’s misguided, confused and impulsive, but you understand why he’s doing what he’s doing, though you may not agree with his approach or the outcome.
No stranger to generating tension, Fuqua is well-suited to the material. However, instead of relying on overt action to create suspense, he uses rapid cutting, a prowling camera and numerous set-ups that take the viewer closer and closer to Gyllenhaal’s sweaty brow, a glaring monitor or a tiny microphone with every cut. There’s an intensity to this approach that ensures this potentially static exercise never flags.
The third-act twist is logical yet no less surprising. Casting the entire first hour in a different light, the revelation prompts Joe to take stock not simply of his recent actions, but his entire approach to his job and life. In the end, “The Guilty” serves as a cautionary tale for those who fail to heed their inner voice of reason.