“The Guilty” is Intense, One of a Kind Thrill Ride [Review]

Can we all just take a second and appreciate how good Jake Gyllenhaal is an actor? The man literally shoulders “The Guilty,” an all but solo thriller that focuses on one single character and asks a LOT of its lead. I can’t stress enough how much time Gyllenhaal spends on screen. The film is centered around the main character, and is framed around not only his perspective, but acts the primary filter through which all events and plot points are pushed through. That’s a tall order for even the cream of the crop of Hollywood, and typically single perspective films struggle with losing their hook early on as well as being an overall compelling film from start to finish. Luckily, “The Guilty” nails just about everything it sets out to do, being a compelling thrill ride from start to finish while also addressing numerous hot button issues without feeling heavy handed or trite.

A remake of the 2018 Danish film (directed by Gustav Möller) of the same name, “The Guilty” is directed by Antoine Fuqua and written by Nic Pizzolatto. It follows ex-cop Joe Baylor who, pending an investigation is forced work as a 911 operator for the LAPD. During a late night work shift plagued by California Wild Fires, Joe receives a call from a woman named Emily, who has been abducted and is traveling on one of the many California freeways. Unable to get an exact location, Joe goes above and beyond the scope of his job to try and find this mysterious woman. As the details begin to unfold, things become more complicated than previously thought, with Joe being pushed to his limits both mentally and emotionally as he races against time to find Emily.

We’ll get to Jake in a bit, but first: Fuqua and Pizzolatto are firing on all cylinders here. The writing is tight and focused, disguising social commentary beneath a compelling, whodunnit thriller. Framing the narrative of “The Guilty” through the lens of a reluctant 911 Operator who clearly has a lot going on personally is a smart choice. It sets the film apart from others like it, especially in the police genre. It’s no secret that cop dramas and action films have been met with much more resistance and scrutiny recently, and “The Guilty” manages to not only dip into some of the more common cop drama/thriller tropes but also subvert many of them in very unique ways.

Both Fuqua and Pizzolatto are content with the letting the story unfold organically and demonstrate immense patience in their storytelling. Their combined restraint is surprisingly refreshing, purposefully withholding details as we watch everything transpire with bated breath. This film is gripping, digging its hooks into viewers and refusing to let go until the credits roll.

And then there’s Jake Gyllenhaal, who is performing on another level of intensity here. That’s saying a lot considering how good of an actor he’s already proven himself to be.

Gyllenhaal is the final piece of this masterpiece puzzle, elevating the solo material in ways very few actors can. He is THE crux of “The Guilty,” as the film is written and directed to feature one actor for a good 90% of the film overall. The voice cast is far more stellar than it needs to be, with Ethan Hawke, Paul Dano, Riley Keough, and Peter Skarsgaard all lending their voices to round out the very limited cast. Make no mistake, this is Gyllenhaal’s movie, and he’s more than up for the challenge of shouldering an entire film from literally start to finish. He’s long been delivering stellar performances throughout his career, but he channels something different in “The Guilty” that sets him far apart from his contemporaries. Despite the skill and wonderfully crafted story behind the camera, the idea and execution is only as a good as the actor asked to bring it life, and Jake passes with flying colors.

There’s not much else that can be discussed without getting into spoilers, and the less you know about “The Guilty” the better. The film works best when you go into it with as little knowledge as possible, so getting into the nitty gritty and plot points would be a disservice to this highly recommended Netflix outing. The one thing (and last) I’ll say about the film is its wonderfully executed social commentary. This is a prime example of how you convey issues like police brutality, mental health, and public perception without assaulting viewers with ham-fisted agendas. The beauty of the film is that you don’t even realize these nuances exist until it has assured that you’re already fully invested, and even then it never makes it the full subject matter or narrative.

Did I mention that it’s also beautifully shot despite taking place in a single location? Well, it is, and it’s one of the many things that contributes to this absolutely wonderful film.

If you’re looking for a quick, gripping, thrilling movie going experience with a purpose and message that never feels like it has one, this is exactly the kind of movie you need to watch. Seriously, it’s great. Better than I expected, and I actually had pretty high expectations. This is one of those rare instances where the skill and talent on paper actually makes its way onto the screen, something we strangely don’t see nearly as often as we should. Case in point, “The Guilty” is fantastic, and worth the watch.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

The Guilty” is currently streaming on Netflix.

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