A filmmaker with a firm grip on gritty action, Antoine Fuqua gamely takes up the challenge presented by The Guilty, a deceptively spare crime thriller that relies on the fertile imagination of the viewer to conjure up the usual highly charged set pieces.
Based on the 2018 Danish film by Gustav Moller that masterfully ratcheted up maximum tautness in minimal surroundings, the American remake stars typically dependable Jake Gyllenhaal as a police officer working in a dispatch center who receives a cryptic distress call from the victim of an abduction from inside a speeding vehicle.
Some crucial tension gets lost in the translation.
But although both Fuqua and his Southpaw star are essentially up to the task at hand, they’re let down by an exposition-heavy script that continually undercuts the crucial building tension. The film still offers Netflix viewers something that’s off the beaten track, but those unfamiliar with the cleverly crafted original will be getting only a diluted taste of what made the concept so bracingly effective.
Anxious to get back out on the street, Gyllenhaal’s Joe Baylor is an LAPD cop relegated to 911 duty (for reasons soon to be revealed), robotically taking the usual crackpot calls against the imposing backdrop wall of huge TV news monitors displaying raging wildfires that threaten to engulf the city.
Frustratedly tethered to his headset, he’s jolted to attention by that hushed, tearful call from a woman (Riley Keough, heard but never seen), who, as Baylor is able to piece together, has been taken against her will by her estranged husband (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard), leaving their two young children home alone.
Doing the best he can given the limited information and resources at his disposal, Baylor battles a ticking clock to save the woman and, in the process, find some much-needed redemption where his own culpable past is concerned.
Those personal stakes are played out too early in Nic Pizzolatto’s script, rather than allowing for the chilling details surrounding the abduction to first build in necessary intensity.
Played out in real time on what is essentially a single set, the production mines all the energy it requires from Fuqua’s precise direction, which wisely keeps the focus nice and tight on Gyllenhaal, capturing every feverish moment of his palpable anguish. Perhaps, in this case, a bit too palpable. The thing about those extreme close-ups is that the slightest wrinkle of an eyebrow can come across as being over-modulated, and there are times when things threaten to reach an unintended melodramatic pitch.
As with the imposing images of the blazing inferno that surround him, the true potency of the film’s construction lies in the spark rather than the flame.