'The Guilty' Is a Gripping Thriller That's All Talk and No Action

Directed by Antoine Fuqua

Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Adrian Martinez, Peter Sarsgaard, Ethan Hawke, Bill Burr

BY Alex HudsonPublished Oct 1, 2021

The Guilty does a lot with a little. It's totally barebones: a runtime of exactly 90 minutes, a tiny cast that pretty much consists entirely of Jake Gyllenhaal talking into a phone, and a setting that never ventures outside of the walls of a 911 call centre. But within these modest confines, director Antoine Fuqua and screenwriter Nic Pizzolatto offer a gripping drama that explores murky moral questions and, most impressively, creates a high-intensity abduction thriller without ever putting most of the principal players on screen.

Gyllenhaal plays Joe, a police officer working in a 911 call centre after being taken off the streets for unspecified reasons. He's got a hot temper and his personal life seems to be interfering with his work, as he gets distracted by calls from his estranged wife and a persistent journalist. But for all his flaws, he seems to care deeply for those who call into the centre — particularly a woman named Emily who has been abducted by her ex, causing Joe to repeatedly overstep the limits of his job description in a desperate attempt to rescue her.

Joe's mysterious backstory is eventually explained, and it's fairly predictable for anyone who has been following the news in recent years. The abduction storyline, on the other hand, takes some gripping twists, which is especially impressive given the way it plays out entirely through conversation. The Guilty is an adaptation of the 2018 Danish film Den skyldige, and it could have easily been a stage play — it's more 2005's Hard Candy than a typical police thriller.

It's a brilliant performance from Gyllenhaal, whose volatile intensity perfectly conveys the turmoil of someone unable to control his worst instincts. The Guilty is compelling precisely because it leaves you wanting more, and Gyllenhaal's performance is strong enough to compensate for the lack of on-screen action.

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