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Review: Antoine Fuqua, Jake Gyllenhaal mostly justify remake of ‘The Guilty’

A man looks at himself in a restroom mirror in the movie “The Guilty”
Jake Gyllenhaal in the movie “The Guilty.”
(Glen Wilson / Netflix)

The Times is committed to reviewing theatrical film releases during the COVID-19 pandemic. Because moviegoing carries risks during this time, we remind readers to follow health and safety guidelines as outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local health officials.

In Antoine Fuqua’s tense and toothy “The Guilty,” Jake Gyllenhaal shrugs and mugs. He cringes and cries. He snaps and snarls and takes frequent blasts of his inhaler, which is handy because, like the oxygenation equivalent of a movie drinking game, these interludes can serve as a useful reminder to viewers to breathe, despite the film doing its twisty, panic-attack best to make hysterical asthmatics of us all.

It’s unmistakably a remake of Gustav Möller’s largely unimprovable 2018 Danish original, but if it scarcely differentiates itself on a story level from “Den Skyldige,” Fuqua’s faithful reworking, given a gloss of L.A. relevance by screenwriter Nic Pizzolatto, does lean heavily into the one pleasure Möller’s film couldn’t boast: Gyllenhaal, glaring and growling, cracking up and breaking down, gasping down lungfuls of Ventolin the way a man underwater might suck on a snorkel.

The drowning man is Joe, a cop on suspension from street duty pending the next day’s trial, who has in the meantime been busted down to headset work as a 911 emergency operator. At first his night’s drama is chiefly personal, as amid 911 calls that range from amusingly whiny to bluntly abusive — not helped by Joe’s judgy, unpleasant phone manner — he also fields calls from a pushy L.A. Times reporter (Edi Patterson), from his recently estranged wife (Gillian Zinser) and from his erstwhile commanding officer (Ethan Hawke), all concerned for different reasons with his court case.

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The dynamic changes — or perhaps Joe just finds a way to project all this stress outward onto something he thinks he might be able to control — when he picks up a call from Emily (Riley Keough). Pretending she’s talking to her 6-year-old daughter Abby (Christiana Montoya), Emily manages to communicate that she’s been kidnapped, and that she’s in a white van, before the connection drops.

As with the original film, a lot of fun here is in tracing Joe’s thought processes as the cop in him, frustrated by the inability of the overloaded emergency service personnel to assign more resources to finding Emily, starts to work the case from all angles available to him while he’s still pinned to his three-monitor desk setup in 911 HQ.

With almost all the actors other than Gyllenhaal delivering voice-only performances (Peter Sarsgaard and Paul Dano also feature) “The Guilty” is more or less a single-location thriller, but Maz Makhani’s glossily low-key camerawork, forever peeking at Joe from behind a computer and finding new angles of closeup on his strained, intense features, is varied enough to suggest claustrophobia without actively inducing it, and to give editor Jason Ballantine plenty of options for pacy, jittery cutting. And the mostly-one-guy-in-mostly-one-location approach also feels unusually well-suited to the laptops and living rooms that its Netflix release inevitably guarantees, not to mention being a canny way to make a slick genre entertainment under pandemic restrictions. (Fuqua directed much of the 11-day shoot from a van parked some way away following a close-contact COVID-19 scare).

Given its beat-for-beat similarity to the original, only this time with forest fires blazing in the background and a light dusting of very current American issues around an urban community grown understandably mistrustful of the police, “The Guilty” cannot singlehandedly justify the tired Hollywood practice of remaking perfectly serviceable films from abroad. But at the risk of having my purist cinephile credentials revoked, within its own very narrow parameters it perhaps does enough to justify its own existence.

Since even the original is predicated on our nervy, direct connection to this archetypal conflicted cop enduring his long, dark night shift of the soul, there is at least a case to be made that dispensing with subtitles and embellishing the action with a little local color and one of the most reliably committed Hollywood stars at work today, is, for English-speaking audiences, the maximum-impact delivery system for these expertly tooled generic twists and turns.

It’s not like there was ever that much to lose in translation from the 2018 film, which was a lean, efficient thrilling machine in its own right. Although maybe some flaws in internal logic — how come Joe gets so few other 911 calls? Why is he working at all the night before a trial so controversial the media are covering it in force? — if they existed in the original, didn’t seem quite so glaring in Danish. But treating its predecessor as simply the slender framework on which to hang a new, marginally different interpretation of the central character, the film moves like a whippet, and gives us ample opportunity to admire the vast range of facial expressions of which Gyllenhaal is capable, while still remaining just this side of overacting.

Not to suggest “The Guilty” is “Hamlet” or anything; it does deal in some odd psychological U-turns that even Gyllenhaal can’t quite sell, as when an unnecessary interpersonal clash or a dumb outburst instantly undoes the meticulous police work Joe has invested so much in, or when he temporarily seems to forget just what his real endgame is.

Still, as a portrait of a tortured man making the exact mistakes in his search for redemption that wind up being the source of a deeper, truer salvation, and as a surprisingly compassionate deconstruction of the snap judgments we often make about gender roles and mental instability (Keough’s voice work in the last act is particularly moving in this regard), the film delivers some insight.

“Broken people save broken people” is the rather unnecessary summation provided at one point, which is mildly ironic, considering that perhaps the highest praise we can lavish on Fuqua’s solid, enjoyable, easily watchable remake, is that beyond the addition of Gyllenhaal, it doesn’t try to fix anything that wasn’t broken in the first place.

'The Guilty'

Rated: R for language throughout.

Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

Playing: Starts Sept. 24, The Landmark, West Los Angeles; available Oct. 1 on Netflix


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