Twenty years ago, Antoine Fuqua directed the well-regarded Denzel Washington/Ethan Hawke thriller Training Day. That’s easy to remember, because the trailer for nearly every movie Fuqua has made since then has dropped “from the director of Training Day” as a major enticement. (Other similarly successful movies from fall 2001 do not share this distinction. “From the director of Don’t Say a Word” hasn’t become universal marketing shorthand.) It’s indicative of how closely associated Fuqua has become with cop movies, even though they only make up a small portion of his filmography. He’s done sci-fi (Infinite), a boxing picture (Southpaw), and a Western (the remake of The Magnificent Seven), alongside plenty of non-cop action movies and Denzel vehicles.
But he’s still “the director of Training Day,” as if the last 20 years never happened. For once, though, that feels appropriate: His new Netflix movie The Guilty is an unexpected companion piece to his past police stories. It’s a cop-on-the-edge thriller where the cop, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, is confined to just a couple of rooms.
In this remake of a 2018 Danish film, Los Angeles police officer Joe Baylor (Gyllenhaal) is answering 911 calls after he’s demoted. At first, using the job as punishment sounds like an insult aimed at the system’s professional operators. But after a while, Joe’s assignment starts to feel like a punishment for them, too, given his constant testiness toward his lower-key colleagues. Joe is clearly itching to get away from his desk and back on the streets, and while on the job, he takes several personal calls alluding to a rapidly approaching hearing that he hopes will get him there. He also makes personal calls about his obligatory marriage on the rocks, complete with disputed child custody.
But a distraction from whatever unpleasantness awaits him outside of the dispatch room arrives when he receives a call from a sobbing woman. She’s in a van against her will, being driven someplace. There’s a man shouting threats in the background. She needs help, and too many of the on-duty emergency responders are busy with California wildfires.
Stressed by the situation but seemingly enlivened by the opportunity to play cop again, Joe makes a variety of calls to different branches of law enforcement while researching the case, trying to help the woman from his desk. The Guilty is a single-location thriller; outside of a few establishing shots and brief fades into fuzzy imagery, it stays in the call center with Joe. Fuqua got his start in music videos, and it’s easy to imagine a version of this movie from earlier in his career relying heavily on fast cuts, impressionistic lighting, and dramatic angles to juice the limited action. Though there’s a little of that here, Fuqua more often settles down his style in the process of sustaining the material over a 90-minute runtime. As Gyllenhaal becomes more frenzied, the movie uses fewer cuts — some of its tensest climactic scenes play out in extended static shots of the actor’s face.
Underneath The Guilty’s pulpy setup — not so different from the 2013 Halle Berry thriller The Call — is a more psychological human drama involving Joe’s troubled history and frazzled state of mind. As with Fuqua’s other cop thrillers, the balance of genre thrills and would-be social relevance isn’t always graceful. Much of The Guilty involves dangling the threat of child endangerment in front of the audience, chased with a treatment of mental illness that falls somewhere between empathy and exploitation. Some of this is mitigated by what seems like a genuine interest in how to tell a cop story in 2021. Fuqua and his fellow grim-pulp specialist Nic Pizzolatto, the True Detective writer who adapted this screenplay, clearly didn’t want to make a tin-eared throwback to earlier eras of police stories.
Though Fuqua’s films haven’t shied away from the misdeeds of law enforcement — recall the showy, malevolent character that won Washington his Training Day Oscar — they’re usually juxtaposed with innocent, honest police. The Guilty only really has one “real” cop on screen at all; the rest are voices on the other end of the phone, or officers who aren’t irritated about their full-time work at the call center. The phone-only cast is impressive: Peter Sarsgaard, Riley Keough, Ethan Hawke, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, and Paul Dano all call in, as if this were a supersized episode of Frasier.
But Gyllenhaal is the whole show, and his irritable, driven, struggling character doesn’t exactly glorify his line of work. His unpleasantness gives the movie its edge, and perhaps also an unearned sense of gravitas. In spite of all the impressive intensity Gyllenhaal summons as the movie slowly clarifies the anguish of Joe’s full story arc, his presence feels like a shortcut, albeit an impressive one — a near-guarantee that the movie will be taken more seriously. Maybe it should be; there’s value in addressing serious problems from the confines of a gimmicky pulp thriller. But as with Training Day, a memorable performance sometimes dominates the drama, rather than serving it.
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