The concept of a single-location thriller is at this point an element of filmmaking tradition with its roots reaching all the way back to Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat and Rope, and possibly quite a bit further into the silent era. The toolbox needed to execute such an artificially constrained narrative successfully has been honed over many decades by many great directors and especially in recent years – owing to the pandemic – the idea of staging an entire movie in a single location has become a go-to avenue for artistic expression. Therefore, the Jake Gyllenhaal-starring remake of a Danish sleeper hit The Guilty was seemingly tailor-fit for the current zeitgeist.
The premise of this movie, which has recently been released on Netflix following its TIFF premiere just a few weeks earlier, is simple enough to fit in a tweet: a 911 dispatcher Joe (Gyllenhaal) troubled with inner trauma receives a call from a kidnapped woman (voiced by Riley Keough) and embarks on a mission to do everything in his power (from behind his dispatcher desk, naturally) to save her life. Thus, the camera is permanently glued to Joe’s face and the entire story, which encompasses his desperate attempts to find out the whereabouts of the kidnapped woman, dealing with increasingly frustrating distractions coming from all corners and Joe’s own conscience slowly taking him apart, plays out on the protagonist’s face and forces the viewer to fill in the blanks that would have typically been taken care of by the movie changing sets and locations.
On paper, there is absolutely nothing wrong with this idea… assuming its strengths are leveraged, and the entire experiment is executed correctly. Sadly, I don’t think this is the case here and only a glance at the original Danish film it is based on (Den Skyldige) will likely inform you that the bulk of what’s wrong with The Guilty has to do with the sheer lack of confidence the filmmakers had in the script and in their own ability to translate the tension and urgency embedded within it into something palpable. While the original plays out mostly straight, this film seems as if it wasn’t sure the story could sustain itself within the parameters of its gimmick. Because we are permanently attached to Gyllenhaal’s visage and can only rely on the power of voice performances to elevate what is on the page, the movie can only succeed in one of two ways: either by virtue of its central performance keeping the viewer enveloped in its headspace, or by virtue of the intricacies of the plot being able to keep them invested. Or – naturally – both.
Sadly, The Guilty doesn’t succeed on either of the two fronts. First of all, it’s honestly difficult to call the central conceit of the film original, especially since the nascent of the so-called ‘screenlife’ thrillers like Searching or Profile, whose entire modus operandi revolves around executing a canonically similar conceit of developing a complex or thrilling plot while confining the viewer to looking at the protagonist’s face while story-altering events are taking place elsewhere. On the flipside of this, one could cite the example of Buried which locks the camera in with its protagonist, who is buried in a coffin somewhere, and capitalizes on the suspense stemming from the idea of the protagonist struggling to save his own life and slowly running out of options. In fairness, the closest that exists in the world of cinema is The Call where Halle Berry plays a 911 dispatcher trying to save someone from the clutches of a serial killer. Interestingly, that 2013 movie fails on its own terms as it eventually abandons its gimmick and has its protagonist get her hands dirty, which also indicates a lack of trust in the film being able to succeed on the basis of its single-location conceit and effectively re-enacting The Silence of the Lambs in a radio show format.
The case is similar here because The Guilty truly revolves around two structural wrinkles to this conceit: a plot twist pertaining to the mystery of the kidnapped woman (Keough) and the Dostoevsky-esque journey of Gyllenhaal’s character to come to terms with his own sins, the nature of which the viewer is ever so slowly allowed to learn over the course of the film. But neither of them seemed independently strong enough to earn the trust of the filmmakers who made distinct decision to pep them up somehow. Thus, Gyllenhaal’s inner turmoil is overbearingly externalized. When he’s angry, he shouts. When he’s stressed, he lashes out. He verbalizes everything, even though he is the only character in the entire film allowed to luxury of using visuals to convey emotions. Everybody else must rely on their voice performances and the strength of the lines written by Nic Pizzolatto. Gyllenhaal can use his acting chops to steal the show and yet he does not. Now, I have been thinking about this for a while now and knowing how talented Jake Gyllenhaal is, I can only place the blame at the feet of Antoine Fuqua, whose job as a director was to give him the space to shine in a way that is evocative, subtle and magnetizing enough to keep the viewer invested in both his quest to solve the kidnapping case and to come to terms with the trauma clouding his life.
Unfortunately, this is where the real problem is found because Antoine Fuqua, as much as I like a bunch of movies he has made, is not Martin Scorsese. He’s more of a competent journeyman director capable of professionally overseeing the production of a movie. To my mind, he’s not an auteur who can elevate the material with his unique style or an inventive approach to the filmmaking process. For lack of a better phrase, he is this generation’s Ron Howard who can confidently pocket his ego and do a great job making an enjoyable film. And in this case, I think it was his job to instil confidence in everyone on the set that less is indeed more, which is where he failed. In fact, it might be the case that the director himself wasn’t sure audiences would buy into the story, so he made sure every single dramatic beat in the film is accentuated by a musical cliché and that any modicum of ambiguity is removed from Gyllenhaal’s performance. Consequently, because it is so damn hard to empathize with his character (as he is effectively inhuman in the way he overcompensates and over-emotes), the viewer has no choice but to look elsewhere, nit-pick at the film and ask if a 911 dispatcher would ever put anyone on hold, or if dispatchers carry guns in their offices.
Thus, The Guilty is a failure on all accounts, a movie that is as infuriatingly ham-fisted as it is predictable. In fact, owing to being assembled out of so many clichés, it has more in common with a fake movie-within-a-movie Kristen Bell’s character in Forgetting Sarah Marshall starred in, rather than an actual movie made for human consumption. It’s an example of sum-of-its-parts uninspired filmmaking and a complete breakdown of trust in the ability of the viewer to understand even the most rudimentary narrative nuance. It only goes to show that maybe foreign hits like Den Skyldige or Force Majeure (together with the remakes of Toni Erdmann and Parasite currently in production) shouldn’t be immediately remade for the Western markets and that audiences should simply learn to read subtitles instead. On second thought, maybe some exceptions can be made because if this was a rule of law, Martin Scorsese’s The Departed would have never seen the light of day.
But let’s be honest: The Guilty is not The Departed and Antoine Fuqua is not Martin Scorsese.