...settling on the safety of disposable thriller machinations.
THE GUILTY (2021)
International remakes are a common occurrence in Hollywood - as filmmakers and studio heads often draw inspiration from different cultures' breakout efforts. Director Antoine Fuqua's latest white-knuckle thriller, The Guilty, is made in the vein of 2018's Oscar-nominated Danish procedural. The film's police-centric narrative seems ripe for an Americanized perspective, but Fuqua and screenwriter Nic Pizzolatto conjure a mere shell of the original's impact. 2021's The Guilty aims for intriguing thematic high watermarks before settling on the safety of disposable thriller machinations.
I've been a fan of Fuqua throughout his career. His sturdy yet versatile skill set allows the craftsman to shift effortlessly from intimate dramas like Southpaw to studio-programmed actioners like The Magnificent Seven. Heck, his sound set pieces were the only reason that the Paramount+ clunker Infinite sustained mild interest.
Unsurprisingly, Fuqua cements a firm grasp on the material's thriller tendencies. He is a seasoned pro at ratcheting tension, keeping one step ahead of viewers as our protagonist descends a series of affecting phone calls. That said, his general competence doesn't elevate the material. The film has a studio-polished sleek that isn't all that pleasant to look at, rarely subverting familiar Hollywood techniques along his breathless runtime. Fuqua's workmanlike efforts are deprived of the substantive shading needed to elevate the proceedings.
Locked in a single-room setting, The Guilty follows Joe Baylor (Jake Gyllenhaal), a 911 responder who idly works through his days while awaiting his transition back to police work. When a typical call turns into something far more sinister, Joe pushes the limits of his job title to save a woman in danger from her menacing captor.
It's clear this film wears the influences of other close-quarters thrillers like Buried and Locke. Unlike those efforts, The Guilty struggles to imbue its urgent narrative with an emotional and thematic punch. I won't get into spoilers, but the film attempts to tackle zeitgeist police dynamics without the complexion to nail its messaging. The dramatic potency rests too much on a third-act revelation that failed to connect for me, lacking the nuance to address the subject's lingering issues.
ACTING | CHARACTERS | DIALOGUE:
If there's one area The Guilty thrives, it's the vibrant performance work. Jake Gyllenhaal continues his run of immersive dedication to his craft, placing himself in Joe's shoes as he battles the clock and his untamed burdens. Few actors can shift between steady gravity and explosive outbursts with such command, with Gyllenhaal imbuing dramatic weight even when it's not entirely present on the page.
While The Guilty markets itself as a one-man show, a few vital voice-over performances to help sell the intrigue. Riley Keough, Peter Sarsgaard, and Ethan Hawke all approach their short burst roles with proper conviction. Keough is easily the standout of the bunch, disappearing into the shoes of a woman manically trying to escape dire circumstances. I also appreciate Pizzolatto's attention to detail when it comes to the procedural exchanges - although some of his dialogue suffers from over-dramatizing situations.
VISUAL EFFECTS | MAKEUP | DESIGN:
For a tight-nit procedural, all three of these elements are relatively minimal. Cinematographer Maz Makhani imbues a professional sheen across the entire production, morphing the bright screens and sanitary office space into a battleground with life-or-death steaks. That said, none of these three elements particularly excel at increasing immersion into the narrative.
MUSIC | SCORE | SOUND DESIGN:
Marcelo Zarvos' score ranks as one of The Guilty's best elements. The veteran composer has composed a wave of meditative dramas (Fences and Dark Waters). Here, he properly sinks his teeth into the pulse-pounding tendencies of modern thrillers, raising the steaks through a series of nerve-wracking instrumentations before cooling the proceedings down with somber quietness. Zarvos exhibits remarkable control as he dances between the two tonalities.
The Guilty strikes enough competent marks to engage as a passable thriller experience. Still, I couldn't help wanting more from a film that presents intriguing thematic connotations without proper followthrough. Fans of the premise should steer towards the 2018 original instead, as that film presents a fearless embrace of difficult questions that lack straight-forward answers.