Anyone who’s seen Prisoners will know that Jake Gyllenhaal is no stranger to the role of troubled detective. Or that of complex characters (see Stronger and Nocturnal Animals). Or committing so hard to a role that you can see the physical evidence of it on screen (Everest, Southpaw, Nightcrawler, the list goes on).
With the camera focused on him for almost the full 90 minutes in The Guilty, Gyllenhaal combines all those skills into one excruciatingly tense performance. He throws himself into the role of detective-turned-911-dispatcher Joe Baylor with so much anger, pain, and sadness that you’re forced to go through every single emotion with him.
I haven’t seen all of Gyllenhaal’s films up to this point, but I’ve seen a lot of them. And this might be his best performance yet.
Based on a 2018 Danish film of the same name and adapted by True Detective creator Nic Pizzolato, The Guilty is a film that exudes stress from the opening scene. We start with an aerial shot of wildfires coursing through California, the heavy womp-womp-womp of helicopters speeding by as terrified 911 calls form the crackling backdrop.
Those same scenes of endless fire are visible on giant screens moments later in the dimly lit 911 dispatch centre where Baylor sits taking calls, a role we quickly discover he’s been landed pending the conclusion of some unmentioned case. Baylor, it’s clear, is no hero. Clutching a blue inhaler so hard his veins stand out, yelling at his colleagues and fellow dispatchers when things don’t go his way, Gyllenhaal paints a portrait of a man close to breaking point. But when he picks up a call from a kidnapped woman, he’s forced to push his personal troubles to one side and act.
To say too much more about the plot would risk giving away the story’s secrets. The Guilty is a film that’s best gone into without knowing too much beforehand. But suffice it to say the majority of the action takes place in just one setting, making it all the more crucial for things like the script, performances, and direction to be spot on.
Fortunately, they all are. The Equalizer director Antoine Fuqua (who, due to COVID, actually had to remain off set in a van during filming) keeps the camera close up on Gyllenhaal’s sweating face, letting the minutiae of every single pained expression carry the weight of the movie. Pizzolato’s script is the perfect compliment, teasing details of Baylor’s backstory without overdoing it and keeping the tension high through a series of broken phone calls that feel realistic.
Speaking of those phone calls, the voice acting deserves a mention too. Riley Keough gives an intensely emotive performance as the faceless woman on the phone, while Peter Sarsgaard, Paul Dano, Eli Goree, and Ethan Hawke all chip in for their own cameos via Gyllenhaal’s headset. It’s an impressive cast that was brought together remotely for the 11-day, mid-pandemic shoot, which Gyllenhaal has said they shot live in five 20-minute chunks.
If the filming process was an intense one, though, then all that pressure has been transferred perfectly into the end result. The Guilty is not a movie to go into if you’re feeling on edge. And for fans of Fuqua, don’t go into it expecting another Equalizer. But if you’re in the mood for some brutal tension, twisty storytelling, and an acting performance that will grind you through every painful human emotion up close, then make sure you don’t miss it.