'The Guilty' Review: Jake Gyllenhaal Can’t Save This Film From Mediocrity

Joshua Lezmi - Author

Oct. 1 2021, Published 5:00 a.m. ET

Jake Gyllenhaal in 'The Guilty'
Source: Netflix

The Guilty operates exclusively within the confines of a 911 dispatch center and relies on Jake Gyllenhaal’s talents to foster and maintain suspense. Though the Netflix original suffers from a predictable twist that fails to deliver shock value, Gyllenhaal’s take on Officer Joe Baylor keeps the film engaging enough. Baylor is a cop plagued by a former trauma, which the film ever-so-subtly suggests with a Bible quote, "And the truth shall set you free," in the first frame.

As Baylor works to keep an abducted woman alive, he fights with an administration more committed to process than protection. The others, too busy dealing with rampant California wildfires, may be desensitized by the very near-death situations they face regularly. However, this is not what comes across in the heavy-handed depictions of apathy that Baylor confronts.

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The Guilty

Our Rating

'The Guilty' offers a strong Jake Gyllenhaal but a plot unredeemable in its predictability.

Netflix Premiere: October 1, 2021

Director: Antoine Fuqua

Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Riley Keough (voice), Peter Saarsgard (voice), Christina Vidal

Writers: Nic Pizzolatto (screenplay), Gustav Möller, Emil Nygaard Albertsen

1h 30m, Rated R

The filmmakers could have suggested a harrowing degree of detachment among other dispatchers, who have learned to emotionally separate from their job to maintain their mental stability. Instead, the film centers Baylor as the only human among a pack of robots clicking buttons. It’s not believable. The I’m-the-only-one-who-cares trope surges to the surface in The Guilty, degrading other officers and sergeants to rule-following, priority-focused cogs in the machine. It’s Baylor against the man.

When considering the unique projects Gyllenhaal usually accepts (Velvet Buzzsaw, Prisoners, Donnie Darko), the film becomes a disappointing expectation violation. The Guilty exploits parallel plot points to characterize Baylor and underpin an otherwise one-dimensional mystery: There’s Baylor’s unexplained-yet-obvious-from-the-get-go past and Emily’s unorthodox abduction. This story technique — featuring concurring narratives that augment each other via frequent switches that occur just before pivotal details emerge— is lazy and old-hat. Yet, despite the fact that The Guilty suffers from second-rate mystery mechanisms, our prodigious boy does his damndest to elevate the banal concept above mediocrity.

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Jake Gyllenhaal in 'The Guilty'
Source: Netflix

Gyllenhaal’s anxiety in The Guilty is beyond palpable. It’s transferable. His fear for Emily’s safety — from the beads of sweat dripping down his neck to his quivering lip and darting eyes — keeps the audience's heart racing. When he works with Emily to slow her breathing, we can’t help but join in on the technique to calm our own fears.

The film aligns the audience with Baylor: He can only hear Emily, so we can only hear Emily. He cannot see what happens when fellow officers pull over a white van, so all we get is a blurry visualization indicative of the image in his mind. The film creates a claustrophobic atmosphere. By forcing viewers to wait for auditory confirmation of life, our ears grow hyper-attuned as our eyes become the secondary sense: a rarity when thinking about cinematic history in general.

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Source: Netflix

The storytelling approach is effective and carves out a little sector in the suspense space. Yet, whether this is enough for the film to be considered a must-see is debatable. It’s merely triumphant in using cinematic choices (and an utterly compelling Gyllenhaal) to transfer a feeling of helplessness to the audience. Gyllenhaal’s frustration with fellow officers, his doubts, his fears surrounding promises he may not be able to keep, is what makes The Guilty a somewhat enjoyable ride. However, when it comes to suspense, predictability is unacceptable.

The Guilty arguably boasts one primary twist and one minor revelation. The build-up to the revelation is shoved down viewers’ throats throughout; it’s referenced in conversations so many times that the emotional relief that should come with Baylor’s final epiphany falls flat.

And, as for the classic climactic twist — the typical turn of events that sets a mystery on a different path halfway through the film — it’s inevitable, but not surprising. It’s grounded in the narrative in such an obvious fashion that it could never shock. The filmmakers never take a moment to throw viewers off the scent. Mysteries require fake-outs and multiple possibilities to ensure widespread surprise come the climax, and without an abundance of options, the truth sets itself free before the filmmakers want it to.

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