Why The New Jake Gyllenhaal Movie 'The Guilty' Doesn’t Work
If you've seen the trailer for The Guilty, a thriller about an emergency dispatcher who receives a call from a kidnapped woman and becomes personally obsessed with helping her, you probably thought it was a contemporary re-telling of 2004's widely popular cult classic, Chris Evans and Kim Basinger-vehicle (and totally not a movie we just remembered existed) Cellular.
Actually, The Guilty is a remake of the 2018's Danish film Den Skyldige. In theory, the remake should work very well. Sure, it's directed by Antoine Fuqua, a man who gets too much credit for the one objectively good movie he's made, Training Day, while the rest of his career has been overrun with terrible, lifeless action movies. Yet despite this, on its side is the fact that its source is a highly praised thriller and that the remake's written by True Detective's own Nic Pizzolatto, a man who can write no wron-- goddammit, nevermind.
Anyway, we still have Jake Gyllenhaal, right? Hell, even his bland movies are satisfying. Well, actually, The Guilty is a competent and engaging thriller, and Gyllenhaal does provide the sweet Gyllenhal-y goodness. Yet, here we also arrive at spoiler territory, the moment you should go and watch the movie if it interests you. If not, here we go. Oh, and after that, we could throw around ideas for a meathead action movie-pitch for Antoine Fuqua called Spoiler Territory.
The movie's main character, Joe Baylor, is a dispatcher who's actually a policeman under an administrative investigation for undisclosed reasons. While answering emergency calls during an apocalyptic California wildfire, he receives a call from a kidnapped woman and begins obsessing as he desperately tries to find her. So here come the spoilers: Donnie Darko time-loops his own death to save existence from being erased by an anomalous branch-universe. Also, The Guilty's plot ultimately reveals that prior to the events of the film, Joe had murdered what the film calls "a young man."
This triggers not only the character's repressed sadness and blatant anger issues but also his personal entanglement around (and mental unraveling with) the case. So he's the guilty, you see. It's a perfectly fine twist, to be sure, although wait 'til you hear of the one at the end of Spoiler Territory 2: Spoiler Alert.
In the movie's defense, this information is delivered with a bit more depth, and it is also one of the main twists of the original Danish version. But the problem is that Denmark has a quite different history of police brutality when compared to the US, and so the original protagonist's tortured pain at his own unjustified killing of a young man in the American version becomes the white-washing, redeeming focus of the suffering victimizer—and this at the expense of any true reflection on institutional violence or on what it creates in its enforcers, not to even mention focus on the victims.
The tone-deafness of doing an American remake of such an intimate-yet-debate-opening story, then, lies in that the emotional gut-punch of the concept's third act becomes lost – or rather, in that it becomes a physical gut-punch, you know, in front of your children, then justified by an entire ideology of law and order refusing to even acknowledge its complicity with the structural violence that police forces, uh, enforce.
Hence, The Guilty: The Sad Story of a Little Police Man Who's So So Sad You Guys but He's Trying indeed takes a concept that invites complex, nuanced, critical discussions on the mental toll of enforcing state violence and turns it into, well, copaganda. Classy copaganda, of course, it's Jake Gyllenhaal. But copaganda nonetheless. For even if Denmark's own record of police behavior is obviously not perfect, a story humanizing a cop for murdering someone not in self-defense, just for mysterious psychological reasons he himself can't understand, and then swapping the obvious reference to systemic, structural causes into a redeeming hero-arc about personal responsibility? Yeah, I don't know, sounds like pure ideology.
Context matters is what we're trying to say, and this also applies to the context and message of your quasi-artsy remake. In the end, and considering the ongoing unmasking of police brutality, cop ideology, and the economic interests that sustain the need for them, it just feels super tacky.
Like doing a movie on the institutional and psychological dimensions of police brutality... and then pushing the real issues under the rug because cops should just be able to get in touch with their feelings, you know.
Top Image: Netflix