Gyllenhaal is Joe, a detective demoted to answering phones and barely able to contain his simmering frustration and resentment at the obnoxious people of Los Angeles who call in for help. The film’s gimmick is that just like Joe, we’re stuck inside the call center. Everything plays out in this one room, the drama coming from each whispering voice in the dark as Joe finds himself trying to solve a kidnapping from within four walls. The film premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, opens in theaters Sept. 24 and streams on Netflix Oct. 1.
The Guilty is Training Day director Antoine Fuqua’s second film this year following the glossy but muddled sci-fi snoozer. True Detective writer Nic Pizzolatto is credited as the writer, although it’s hard to see how much has really changed from the original version, a . By casting Gyllenhaal, the US remake recalls another LAPD thriller with a camera gimmick, End of Watch, and this is almost like a spiritual sequel as it delves into the psyche of the men who wield the badge and gun. But Joe has other things on his mind beside serving and protecting.
The moodily lit dispatch room is illuminated by a huge bank of screens showing the chaos outside: raging wildfires, burning cop cars, news reports from LA’s frontline of human misery. The swirling conflagration in the background gives the film some much-needed visual interest, as the energy and propulsion comes from the editing between shots and from Gyllenhaal’s performance. Both the editing and Gyllenhaal’s acting are fidgety, chafing against the restrictions of the single room. It’s a decent enough performance from Gyllenhaal, but a parallel subplot about Joe’s legal troubles never really gets going so we don’t see the layers of his unlikeable character unfold.
We first meet Joe sucking on an asthma inhaler, the very air of his city turning on him. Probably a good 40% of the following film is made up of this shot repeated, as Gyllenhaal frets in tight close-up. Joe is a deeply unhappy man, frequently zoning out or blowing up. He’s dismissive and unhelpful to the people who call for help, telling a scared, drug-addled caller it’s their own fault they’re freaking out and making a point of adding that police will come with the ambulance. Whether he’s snapping at his fellow officers or calling his ex in the middle of the night, he can’t seem to stop himself from making things worse.
Set in LA, the film takes on a chilling topicality as wildfires burn the world outside, just as the Dixie fire and thousands of others continue to ravage the West coast. There’s a palpable sense of desperation as the police fight not to become overwhelmed, both in terms of logistics and on a personal, emotional level. Although it isn’t mentioned in the film, The Guilty is also a product of the pandemic. The film was announced in 2018, way before COVID, but the tiny cast and single location made it the ideal socially distanced production when it was shot in late 2020.
“Social distance” could be a theme of the film, set in a city where millions are packed on top of each other and yet live worlds apart. By telling a story through unseen voices, The Guilty focuses on the way people talk to each other.
Police officers bristle not just at civilians but at each other, throwing up verbal body armor that instead renders them isolated, vulnerable, even fragile. Dispatch officers, whose whole job is to talk to others, are dispassionate to the point of numbness. Whether compartmentalizing or traumatized by the job, or just assholes, they chafe at crossover between LAPD and CHP or whatever acronymic tribe they’re nominally tied to.
“Don’t fuckin’ tell me what to do,” a highway patrolman growls down the phone at Joe as the patrolman edges towards a traffic stop, carrying his separate anger, resentment and ego into an interaction with a civilian that feels toxic and threatening before it’s even begun. Down the phone line we hear the patrolmen barking at a citizen whose only crime is to drive a car that might look a bit like a car that might be involved in a crime, maybe. You’ve probably been subjected to enough real-life dashcam or smartphone horrors in recent years to feel bitterly aware of how this interaction can go tragically and pointlessly wrong.
Cops the film suggests, have their own problems. And crucially, these problems leave them with buttons to be pushed. A cop who knows he has to be on his guard all the time is guarded even when he shouldn’t be, and a cop who misses his family brings his own baggage when dealing with another messed-up family situation. This could be a critique of the policing system, showing that the power of life and death is in the hands of people emotionally ill-equipped to deal with it.
Or it could be seen as an argument that police officers are just doing the best they can in impossible situations. If the film is about communicating, about asking for help, it’s also specifically about how people talk to the police. Sure, the rates of domestic abuse or unpunished violence meted out by law enforcement police officers are horrifying, but maybe we should cut the cops some slack: They get yelled at all day. Considering the current protests over continuing police violence, especially against people of color, The Guilty is oddly sympathetic to some clearly unpleasant characters.
Nerve-wracking twists keep The Guilty moving, but even at a tight 90 minutes it can sag, depending on your tolerance for staring at extreme close-ups of Gyllenhaal frowning. By the end, Gyllenhaal’s broken cop is lost for words, which perhaps fits with a film that doesn’t have as much to say as it could have.