Can you have a long dark night of the soul if you don’t have a soul? The Guilty, a new film by Antoine Fuqua (Training Day), with Jake Gyllenhaal appearing in practically every shot as a 9-1-1 operator seeking to help a desperate caller, is certainly set over the course of a long night, and is dimly lit. But Joe, its protagonist, is no more than a grab-bag of issues and conflict—a cypher for an idealized sort of American valor that can still shine through the pervading murk. For this reason and a few others, The Guilty has a deeply hokey flavor, like a bourbon start-up.
Gyllenhaal, emoting handsomely throughout and occasionally stretching a subtly biceped arm in frustration, plays the central cop-with-a-conscience, one Joe Bayler (get it?). Joe, we are given to understand from a few exposition-minded phone calls he takes early on, has a lightly scornful attitude toward people calling upon his services, being vaguely victim-blaming and libertarian-sounding. We also gather that Joe will be up for some sort of trial the next day. These unpretty tendencies are just about as far as The Guilty seems prepared to go in the business of fleshing out and shading its protagonist: a few anemic character traits stand in for what should be an ambiguous portrait of a cop with a guilty conscience reaching the end of his tether.
As Joe’s evening shift goes on, the puppy-eyed, lantern-jawed white cop receives a call from a woman, Emily, who is phoning from a freeway, where she is being held hostage in a van by her partner, Henry. Something in the woman’s voice, and her evident love for her daughter, registers more deeply with Joe than other callers, and he vows to help her out. But Emily, out of fear, is unable to give Joe any exact details, and he will have to use all his wiles to track her down and come to her rescue. In the process, Joe will have to confront—or would have had to confront, in a film with greater psychological clout—some demons of his own.
The main calling card of The Guilty—and perhaps its most successful touch—is that the viewer never sees Emily and Henry, or indeed any other characters besides a couple of incidental colleagues within the call center. Therefore, all the action is conveyed in voicework on the phone, giving Gyllenhaal the task of reacting to all developments. This technical conceit imposes visual strictures upon the film, which is obliged to compensate for the lack of action depicted on screen with a quick edit and a flurry of different angles and close-ups. At times, this busyness can seem overplayed: the film is at its best when trusting in the charisma of its leading man to hold our attention.
Lengthier shots of Gyllenhaal, who commands the screen most capably when silent, give an idea of the richer character study that The Guilty, which will be released Oct. 1 on Netflix, could have been. Nevertheless, as a relatively upmarket thriller the film hits many of its suspense beats and works quite tidily as a genre piece. Even here though, there is the odd misstep: a late twist is revealed quite clumsily because of imprecise writing, flubbing a clear opportunity to provide an enjoyable shiver down the spine. The film’s ending, too, feels lazily tacked-on, revealed in crass voiceover over a banal sunset during the credits—although maybe it will hold some nostalgic appeal for lovers of rote 1990s John Grisham rip-offs.
Ultimately, The Guilty has a tacky, phony feel to it: Fuqua is not a virtuoso filmmaker, as you would need to be to pull off this stylistic exercise, and the film feels pretty tin-eared, in 2021, in the way it seeks to center and redeem the cop at its heart. By turns gloopy and overwrought, The Guilty is laughable when it purports to comment on contemporary America, and point-missing in its simplistic politics. What remains is a generically able piece of disposable content with a cosmetically original concept, which is surely set for a short shelf life in the wilds of the streaming landscape.