Based on the 2018 Danish thriller Den Skyldige, Antonie Fuqua’s new thriller The Guilty for Netflix follows the original almost beat-for-beat, line-for-line. One can imagine many of the original’s fans will look at this American remake with a sense of “Well, why would I even watch this?” Too often critically acclaimed foreign films are given American remakes for no other reason than the “one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles” that keeps so many from experiencing incredible cinema from around the globe. This is true and one can only hope that new fans of The Guilty will take the time to also seek out Den Skyldige. Yet, there is absolutely something to be said about the ability of a filmmaker to reframe and recontextualize a story in a way that changes seemingly little on the surface, but so much on a thematic and subtextual level. This is exactly what Antoine Fuqua is able to achieve, in a taut, tightly wound thriller that takes the limitations of its creation and makes good on most of its potential.
The film opens on the Los Angeles skyline, engulfed in surrounding wildfires and 911 calls – setting the tone and creating a sense of chaos and a lack of control from the very start. Enter Joe Baylor, a 911 operator who has been demoted from police officer because of an impending trial. As we watch Joe answer 911 calls with a smug, blasè attitude, we get the sense that he feels he is above this job. Until receiving a call from a mother who has been abducted, in which a fire is lit inside of Baylor, who decides he will do any and everything to save her and the endangered children left behind.
This hero cop on a one-man-mission premise is noxious and well-worn territory, playing particularly poorly in light of current events. It’s not a story I’m particularly interested in, nor are many others frustrated with the criminal justice system’s long abuse of power. Which is something Antoine Fuqua and Jake Gyllenhaal are aware of.
Joe Baylor does not play as a hero or outsider, but rather the worst kind of loose cannon cop that the media has trained us to root for. Fuqua plays with these expectations by creating a scenario in which we want Baylor to succeed in saving the abducted woman, however, Baylor himself is just so steeped in darkness and unlikability. The true character of someone like this, usually masked in other cop dramas and thrillers by action and snappy character back and forth, is on full display here. Confining this character to just one location means there is no flashiness, only raw emotion and flaws.
This is not a man losing control, but one who lost it long ago, projecting this and ruining the lives of others, something we witness happen in real time. Gyllenhaal employs every trick in his arsenal, telling a story of his own as the film’s narrative plays out, every twist and turn informing the next step in Baylor’s own internal war. It’s the kind of performance that he has become known for, in which you simply cannot turn away from the screen.
And at times you may want to turn away from the screen, as The Guilty pulls very few punches in its lean, anxious thrills. Both a claustrophobic, minute-to-minute thriller and dialed-in character study, this is the rare film that honestly plays best on streaming. One of the most fascinating behind the scenes tidbits about The Guilty is that because of COVID-19, Antoine Fuqua actually directed the film from a monitor in a van. One has to imagine this style of socially distanced filmmaking (also done in 11 days!) informed and changed Fuqua’s vision significantly.
Where the narrative unfortunately falters is when it needed to have stuck the landing most, its own ending. What should be a quiet, nuanced gut punch, instead goes big and feels like loudly stating what was already clear. It dampens the impact and serves to almost retroactively make worse ideas that were previously good, not trusting the audience to come to the logical conclusion on their own. “Broken people save broken people” a character says to Joe Baylor, a laughably cliche line that served to make me rethink my own goodwill towards the film up until that point and reframes The Guilty as an almost redemptive story, which is a shame given that it otherwise had felt like a real deconstruction of the “hero” cop myth we’ve all come to know in cinema and which has had harmful real life implications.
The Guilty seeks to dissect the very idea of the cinematic hero cop and the very real damage that can be done when the fires of one’s own internal hell are let to burn wildly in the fragile lives of others who need real helpers, not misguided heroes. It doesn’t ultimately commit to this idea and its other themes in the way one would hope, but a fantastic performance from Gyllenhaal and assured direction from Antoine Fuqua make this a film worth watching.