Before my brain could tell me what I thought about Netflix's new film The Guilty, my body had already done the work. As the credits rolled on Antoine Fuqua's thriller starring Jake Gyllenhaal (and almost exclusively Jake Gyllenhaal), I could feel my appreciation for the film in my skull. Turns out I'd had my jaw clenched super tight for nearly 90 straight minutes, and loosening it at the film's conclusion revealed a slight headache. I don't know if "you'll need two Advil!" is the type of thing producers want on the poster, but in this case it's the truth.
In one of his best performances yet, Gyllenhaal is riveting as benched LAPD officer Joe Baylor awaiting his day in court for something we don't get a lot of information about at first, but you can easily glean involved a hot-headed moment of policing and a gun. For now, Joe is serving the late-night shift in a 911 call center, forwarding cries of help to various emergency services. Los Angeles is in the grips of a terrible (and aptly symbolic!) wildfire, so nerves are even more frazzled than usual. As Joe clutches his asthma inhaler, leaves cryptic messages for his soon-to-be-ex-wife, and is a little curt with some of his whinier callers, his switchboard lights up.
A woman pretending to speak to her daughter has been kidnapped, and Joe needs to slyly fish out enough information so the California Highway Patrol can come to her aid. This thrusts Joe into a borderline vigilante investigation led from his desktop. (He eventually moves into a room of his own, so he can call in favors and shout expletives in a little more privacy.) It's a race against time, plus there's a little girl at home (Joe is able to track down other phone numbers) who is panicked and wants her mommy. Bureaucracy and bad luck block every move Joe makes, but he's always got another trick up his sleeve -- until he's gotta pull out the big gun. (No spoilers! But it all comes together really nicely!)
The Guilty, based on a Danish film of the same name, is set nearly in real-time, and could easily be adapted into a play. This is oftentimes a kiss of death for a movie, but Antoine Fuqua is more than up for the challenge. He keeps the camera moving, but he doesn't rely on crazy angles, radical cuts, or split screens. It's more of an urgent grip that keeps getting tighter. At times, Joe stares off and we get a hazy vision of what is likely happening, but the colors are off due to the wildfire, or the framing is unnervingly just out of whack. These moments create a discomforting, feverish quality, enough to keep you off balance as you snap back to Joe at his station.
Gyllenhaal is razor sharp here, with pretty much the entire production relying on the increasing anguish on his face. (There are a few moments with other actors in the room; the rest is all over the phone.) What's most impressive is that he doesn't default to a lot of showy "actor tricks." He just keeps his head down and races along with the story momentum. The script, adapted by True Detective's Nic Pizzolatto from the original Danish film, gives you just the information you need, as is appropriate in a situation when one dispatcher blurts license plate numbers to another without wanting to waste another millisecond.
It wasn't until I saw the credits that I realized I "knew" those voices on the other end of the phone. Turns out they were Riley Keough, Ethan Hawke, Da'Vine Joy Randolph, Paul Dano, Bill Burr, and Gyllenhaal's brother-in-law Peter Sarsgaard. It is to their credit, and the film's, that I was so caught up in the tension that I only considered them as the characters they played. (Either that or I have truly lousy auditory recall.) In a way it's funny that this most modern of entertainment distribution paradigms -- Netflix -- has reminded me of a great, lost art form: the radio play.
TV Guide rating: 4.5/5
The Guilty premieres Friday, Oct. 1 on Netflix.