Jethro Robathan | Film Content Writer
Antoine Fuqua’s The Guilty (Netflix, 2021) is a crime-thriller that fringes on the cusps of horror, rather timely with its October 1 release on Netflix. Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, who plays call centre-confined cop Joe Baylor, The Guilty unfolds with the mundane reality of working within emergency dispatch. Baylor’s deadpan, albeit procedural, responses to addicts and pickpockets initially win him the audience’s commiseration.
Yet, it is this very commiseration that falls under scrutiny and is thus unceremoniously ripped away in the film’s denouement as events between Baylor, Emily Lighton (off-screen, voiced by Riley Keough) and Henry Fisher (off-screen, voiced by Peter Sarsgaard) unravel. It is clear Baylor is far from perfect; Gyllenhaal manages to skillfully traverse and revitalise the weary tropes of a fractured marriage, lack of child custody, and a disposition to rage against a backdrop of narrative parallels to the real world.
These parallel plotlines are uncannily accurate in their present-day manifestations, given that screenwriter Nic Pizzolatto’s script is based on the older Den skyldige (2018, dir. Gustav Möller). The Guilty is chillingly pertinent, with Fuqua’s cinematic embellishments – for instance, the addition of Baylor suffering severe asthma alongside the visually mesmerising Californian wildfires – lending credence to the ongoing climate crisis.
The increasingly topical issues of police brutality and violence against women find a coincidental yet necessary voice within The Guilty. In the tragic wake of the murder of George Floyd in 2020, Gyllenhaal’s arresting performance on screen echoes a growing distrust of policing forces and methodology on the streets. Further, Baylor’s sobering realisation of Emily’s predicament – an abductee at the hands of Henry, her ex-husband – is analogous to the sickening abduction-murders of Sarah Everard and Sabina Nessa in London. There is a foreboding resonance to be found in Emily’s apparent fate with the growing epidemic of violence against women across England.
Shot with a single on-screen lead while never leaving the interiors of Joe Baylor’s purgatory stint in emergency dispatch, The Guilty carries similarities to the likes of Hitchcock’s Rope (1948). Both features constrain themselves to limited settings while not sacrificing any of their narrative potency nor visual beats. Notably, Keough’s evocative personification as Emily Lighton attentively lends itself to addressing sensitive matters such as mental health and suicide despite lacking a visual appearance. There are still weaknesses within the film. While the movie’s score functioned competently in maintaining racing pulses, it was simultaneously entirely forgettable and falls short of the standards set by Gyllenhaal and Keough.
The Guilty is ultimately a taut cinematic experience with sophisticated writing that is unyielding and provides the catalyst for Jake Gyllenhaal to showcase his finest acting chops. The finale bears witness to dizzying emotional oscillations as the audience is dragged from unfettered desperation to seismic relief, and bottomless guilt to remorseful acceptance within a matter of minutes. Fuqua’s adaption of the critically-acclaimed Den skyldige (2018) may not stray too far from the Danish picture in terms of creative reinterpretation, but The Guilty effectively succeeds in walking the tightrope between humanising the police workforce while consciously recognising their flaws.