The Netflix thriller The Guilty offers a layered narrative. The central plot tracks an apparent kidnapping case that demoted LAPD officer Joe Baylor works to solve from his desk at a 911 call center. The subplot, however, follows an incident that has Jake Gyllenhaal's character facing legal consequences. And toward the climax of the film, the question shifts from what will Joe do to what did Joe do.
“Nothing is as it seems,” Jake told Entertainment Weekly in August. “Joe really does not enjoy his job, but, in the end, what he realizes is, in order to solve this case, he has to face a truth within himself. I love characters that are question marks, and, in a lot of ways, he’s the ultimate question mark.”
The guilty party isn’t who you think it is.
As the film starts, Joe is responding to 911 calls while preparing for a hearing about an incident that happened eight months ago — and fielding calls from a Los Angeles Times reporter asking about the hearing.
One of the emergency calls that night is from a woman named Emily (Riley Keough), whom Joe suspects has been kidnapped by her ex-husband, Henry (Peter Sarsgaard). Joe gets two other LAPD officers to do a wellness check on Emily’s kids, Abby and Oliver, the latter of whom turns out to be gravely injured.
Meanwhile, Joe gets his ex-partner, Rick (Eli Goree), to break into Henry’s apartment, and Henry finds documents indicating Emily had been undergoing psychiatric treatment. Eventually, Joe realizes that Emily is the one who hurt her son — she says he had “snakes” in his stomach — and that Henry isn’t kidnapping Emily but taking her back to the treatment facility.
Emily breaks free from Henry’s van, though, and calls Joe from a highway overpass. In part to deescalate the situation, Joe finally reveals what he did: He shot a 19-year-old man while on duty. “I wanted to punish him because I was angry. He hurt someone,” he says.
In the end, Emily comes down from the overpass, saying she wants to be with Oliver, who is hospitalized but expected to live. And Joe calls back the reporter, saying he’s ready to share his story, and we learn in the film’s closing moments that he pleads guilty to manslaughter.
Jake Gyllenhaal says the ending is a “fantasy” that’s not happening because of a “broken system.”
He added: “What is not happening is because of a broken system. When [director] Antoine [Fuqua] and I first spoke about the movie, it was about mental health and about systemic issues that he felt were important. We both love a hugely entertaining movie on the surface, but we need anchors, and we need things to connect to. This movie offered it to both of us.”
The actor also explained that the film “became a different sort of conversation” after the murder of George Floyd. “And frankly, it was a conversation that I felt to be extraordinarily important,” he said. “I thought, can still make this movie, given the environment, the sociopolitical issues that were going on? It became even more important for me to want to try and make it.”