Fans of cop movies will find The Guilty a unique addition to the genre. Those wary of the genre may find The Guilty the movie that finally tells a cop story worth telling. That being said, content warning for incoming discussion of police and police violence in a fictional context.
The Guilty is a remake of the 2018 Danish film of the same name. The story follows LAPD police officer Joe Baylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) who has been taken off of frontline duty and is working as a 9-1-1 dispatcher and must help a caller in distress. He has been taken off of the front lines because of an undisclosed incident, which in today’s reality doesn’t take a lot to fill in many of the blanks.
Director Antoine Fuqua gives a master class in avoiding so many of the tropes of the cop movie genre that centre toxic masculinity and gratuitous violence. Instead, he builds a character study around a man full of rage charged with “protecting” society’s most vulnerable. He opts for this deep dive into a man who is breathtakingly unprepared to interact with even his own colleagues and the story is richer for it.
Gyllenhaal is in his element playing Baylor, and it’s to his advantage that the majority of the other characters are portrayed off-screen, mainly through the phone. The movie is shot between essentially two rooms in the dispatch office, and Gyllenhaal makes sure to fill every square inch. The audience feels as trapped and claustrophobic as he does, which only adds to the tension of the story.
The voice cast deserves a massive shout out by providing plenty of drama by not even being on screen. Ethan Hawke, providing the voice of Sergeant Bill Miller, is even by phone a typically wonderful Ethan Hawke character providing a gruff, steady leadership over the phone that he plays so well in live action.
Tony-nominated Da’Vine Joy Randolph shines as a weary highway patrol dispatcher and succeeds in conveying over the phone that emotional violence is a sad but ever present reality in the job.
Eli Goree plays Rick, Baylor’s conflicted partner faced with the choice to tell the truth or stand behind his fellow officer. Riley Keough, Peter Sarsgaard, and Christiana Montoya round out the voice cast as a family on the brink. Paul Danno’s surprise role as a caller in distress following a particularly humorous robbery provides a light-hearted moment in an otherwise tense and dramatic story.
The main difference in this version from the original movie is its updated context to reflect America’s current reckoning with the very concept of police. Fuqua so effectively captures the current zeitgeist by highlighting issues with policing being systemic in nature and not related to individuals. In a less capable director’s hands, this message would have been lost.
The Guilty is really a great example of how to properly re-make a movie. The strength of the original was in its slowly building tension and its potent use of space. Rather than simply re-making the original beat-for-beat, the updated American context adds such a depth to the story. Certain additions in this version, like the police officer’s family, feel unnecessary to the story. Fuqua keeps the best elements of the original particularly in keeping the plot itself tight and suspenseful.
Although the final plot twist is easy enough to see at a certain point, it’s no less devastating and viewers will be left with a sick feeling. Fuqua challenges the audience right until the very end to reflect on how society so often fails the most vulnerable in so many ways, from policing to a stunning lack of mental health support for those who need it most.
Ultimately, The Guilty provides a blueprint of how to best do a re-make, adding in unique elements to add to the story while preserving what made the original a great film worthy in its own right.
We can only hope The Guilty paves the way for future entries into the cop movie genre to be more reflective on the system itself and how society can do better.
The Guilty (2021) is now streaming on Netflix.