Jake Gyllenhall, I was remarking to a friend this week, sure has a way of making you feel for the characters he portrays, even if they happen to be reprehensible. In End of Watch, Nightcrawler, Velvet Buzzsaw, even his turn as Mysterio in Spider Man: Far From Home, he manages to bring a sympathetic air to the nasty dudes whose roles he takes on. In his newest project, Antoine Fuqua’s The Guilty, Gyllenhaal accepts the challenging task of embodying a dirty cop who is accused of a horrific crime. In doing so, he presents a layered character whose inner turmoil bleeds into his duty and desire to help a desperate family, and in doing so, perhaps redeem himself.
Gyllenhaal’s Joe Baylor is an LAPD cop who is assigned to 911 call duty after being accused of an officer-involved shooting. In the post-George Floyd (and the distressingly many similar incidents between cops and people of colour), we are all too familiar with what that means and the implications of those words. The aggrieved Baylor is, shall we say, less than sympathetic to the plight of those that call in for emergency services and it’s clear as day that he would rather be anywhere else, though preferably back on the street.
Until a particularly distressing call comes in. It’s a woman who has been abducted, and Baylor immediately puts his own problems aside and tries to help. But the Los Angeles area is plagued by wildfires and the availability of police and other emergency resources is strained, and Baylor throws himself – perhaps a little too hard – into the situation. There’s only so much a 911 operator can do, though, especially one that’s stretched as thinly and is as constantly frustrated as Baylor is.
The Guilty throws several twists into the story which I won’t get into here, but as my friend Carol states in her review, ultimately your enjoyment of this film will hinge on whether you think this is a story worth telling. Personally, I think that if any director is capable of addressing the plight or at least the journey of an LA cop coming to grips with his own heinous transgressions, it’s Fuqua who kind of specializes in these things from his groundbreaking Training Day and Brooklyn’s Finest. Nic Pizzolatto (True Detective)’s script, based on the Danish original film from 2018, handles the thorny subject matter with grace and style.
I think, though, that even if you don’t go into the film wanting or needing to hear from this type of character, Gyllenhaal’s performance does everything it can to bring you in as a viewer. He’s really the only one onscreen for the majority of the movie, giving it more of a Phone Booth (2002) vibe than, say, End of Watch. Fuqua knows exactly how to direct his star, having worked with him on the excellent Southpaw (2015), and Gyllenhaal’s ultra-expressive face and mannerisms are even more front-and-centre here than in that film, and unlike in that movie, he is not being actively pummelled for any of it. Making Fuqua’s work on The Guilty even more impressive is the fact that he directed much of the film in isolation from the set due to COVID exposure. Additionally, the use of top-tier stars such as Riley Keough, Ethan Hawke, Paul Dano, and Peter Skarsgaard in speaking roles but never actually appearing onscreen is a powerful choice, and each holds their own. This is, though, the Jake Gyllenhaal show, and it demands that he single-handedly anchors and steers this film as it completely hinges on your investment into his performance. In my opinion, he’s more than up to the task.
The Guilty may not be for everyone, and I get that. ACAB and all, but Gyllenhaal’s powerful performance and the many twists and turns in the story make it a captivating watch that doesn’t require you to identify with, or even like, Baylor. As a tense, gripping thriller, it’s one of both Gyllenhaal and Fuqua’s finest accomplishments, especially given the COVID-related obstacles thrown in front of them in the production. If you’re up for it, there’s plenty here to make it worthwhile.
The Guilty will have a limited theatrical release on September 24, ahead of a release on Netflix on October 1.