Jake Gyllenhaal’s new thriller, The Guilty, boasts a healthy cast list that includes Ethan Hawke, Riley Keough, Paul Dano, Peter Sarsgaard, Eli Goree, comedian Bill Burr, and the great Da’Vine Joy Randolph (Dolemite Is My Name). You won’t see any of them in the movie. You’ll hear quite a bit of them, though. Randolph as a tired dispatcher for California Highway Patrol; Hawke as the understanding-ish sergeant that Gyllenhaal’s character, officer Joe Baylor, once worked under; Keogh and Sarsgaard as a couple in serious trouble.
They’re a few of the characters we hear entirely via Joe’s headset, clamoring for his attention on a very busy night at a 911 emergency response center in Los Angeles. The setting in itself is already a veritable chamber of drummed-up tension and jittery energy. And the night on which The Guilty takes place was already rough for Joe to begin with. For one, California wildfires are raging — bad news for Joe’s asthma and, worse, an impediment to officers being dispatched to save people, even just drunken fools, amid all that smoke. Plus the added tension of Joe’s home life, which isn’t much of a life anymore: six months separated from his wife, living in an AirBnB, missing his daughter and his former life — you get it.
There’s also the other thing. The reason he’s on duty at the call center, being the dispatcher rather than being out on the streets, in uniform, getting dispatched. The reason he and his wife are separated. The Guilty is set on the eve of a hearing at which Joe will have to answer for an officer-involved shooting. He was the officer. The victim died. Joe’s got feelings about it. All of it.
The Guilty is a remake of 2018’s memorable Den Skyldige (The Guilty), directed by Gustav Möller, who co-wrote it with Emil Nygaard Albertsen. This new version was directed by Antoine Fuqua and written by True Detective’s Nic Pizzolatto. If you saw that earlier movie, though, you know the premise of this one; the differences are largely cosmetic. A woman named Emily (Keogh) calls emergency response and gets the already-stressed Joe, who almost hangs up when it seems that the woman has dialed the wrong number, is off her rocker, or whatever it is; by all accounts she seems to be talking into the phone as if to a child. But Joe — and those of us in the audience, who never leave Joe’s side for the movie’s full hour and half — soon realize something is wrong. Is it gibberish she’s talking, or is she trying to signal for help? When the answer emerges, Joe’s hero-instincts kick in and, with them, some of his less appealing qualities as a colleague and cop, starting with his apparent inability to keep his cool. Watching The Guilty is like watching Gyllenhaal juggle with loaded weapons. Every other second, you expect one to go off; you anticipate having to wonder who got hit this time.
Have I mentioned that Joe is an asshole? Yelling, throwing things, testing the patience of the officers on the other end of the line as they pursue a possibly-kidnapped woman with only the most threadbare information available to them (“a white van”) and stick their necks out at Joe’s insistence by breaking into a home without a warrant. It is all so unbearably stressful, very much to the movie’s point. The Guilty is designed, programmed half to death, to be a pressure cooker. Joe’s frustration is understandable, particularly as the picture grows clearer regarding that mysterious caller. And Gyllenhaal accordingly gets a lot of mileage out of his crew cut and tight shirt, flexing the vein-bulging tension he’s managed to affect in his body and mannerisms. The performance is openly excessive: Joe’s emotions are excessive. He has way too much going on upstairs to not be a walking ball of stress, starting with his immense sense of guilt over that shooting he’s on the line for, which is clearly — Gyllenhaal is nothing if not clear about it — eating him up inside. When he admits to another dispatcher, played by Adrian Martinez, that he’s been a dick at work, what’s there for the other guy to say except, I know?
Add to that a huge panel of screens, square in front of his desk, showing those fires raging, and it’s like the man is in a living hell. Fuqua, who shot the film in 11 days during the pandemic — while quarantined, no less, thanks to having come in contact with someone who tested positive for the virus (Fuqua tested negative) — keeps it all very tight. Maybe that situation, not having total control as a result of social distancing, inspired something in him. The most salient thing about The Guilty is Joe’s inability to control the chaos, both the one raging within him and the one playing out in the awful game of telephone that has become his night.
The script, though, is still too schematic about it all; this was true of the original, too, though that movie’s coolness, contra Fuqua’s literal fire and brimstone, hid its deficits far more successfully. There is indeed more going on with Emily and her partner, Henry (Sarsgaard), than at first appears. But the movie’s real kicker isn’t so much the jagged twist summing up that leg of the story. Joe’s got an officer-involved shooting hanging over his head. He knows it. We know it. The movie knows it. It knows what it’s doing when it wrenches complexity out of the guy by putting him in the most stressful situation possible; it knows it’s giving us a film-length glimpse of a man pushed to visible breaking point, which is a way of imagining that same man six months ago, despite the circumstances of whatever happened never really being elaborated upon. Speaking of fires: It’s all a smoke show, all flash-bang complexity with no soul. As titles go, The Guilty — curt, descriptive, accurate — couldn’t be more appropriate. Like the movie that it adorns, it seems to tell you most everything you need to know. And almost gets away with saying not much at all.
Aneil Karia’s Surge, another movie about a troubled Joseph, is a pressure cooker, too. And a more interesting movie than The Guilty, if only because its endgame turns out to be far less ambitious than at first appears, to the point of making the movie seem half-mysterious. For a while, this Joseph (Ben Whishaw) is showing all the signs of being the kind of guy we’re inclined to worry about. On the one hand, he’s a little too quiet. On the other hand, his eyes — and the giant bags under them — are too loud. The British Joseph, who works in airport security, giving awkward pat-downs for a living, can probably be summed up in one detail: Watching his colleagues eat a birthday cake in the break room, overhearing them talk shit about carrot cakes, without him ever speaking up to say that it’s his cake — his birthday.
So: antisocial. Not one to speak up. Lives alone, minimal furniture, eats TV dinners, stares intensely at things like he’s daydreaming their destruction, or maybe barely noticing that they’re there — it’s hard to say. Karia’s film, with its handheld intensities and shallow-focus eagle-eye for Whishaw’s performance, gives us plenty of other behavioral details to latch onto, however. Such as the tremor of disgust, or at minimum displeasure, at other peoples’ humiliation during those pat-downs. They’re half-naked, but Joseph is the one who seems put upon. And what about Joseph’s habit of biting down on forks, or on the rims of glasses, like he’s trying tiptoeing up to the point of injury, just daring his body to break?
It eventually happens: A glass breaks in his mouth on a visit to his parents, blood goes everywhere, and Joseph gets what he wants. Because, though Joseph very well may have something amiss, mental-health-wise, Surge isn’t so much about illness or a specific form of psychic meltdown as it is about a man trying to stir himself awake. You know, feel more alive. A man who does some awfully inadvisable things to get that feeling: Namely, midway through the movie, he starts robbing banks.
Whishaw is a very good actor, and if other stars could have pulled the role off, he has the qualities that minimize the movie’s contrivances and make Joseph worth watching. The movie is effective almost despite itself. Things that could very well be more rote, such its view of his parents — his depressive, worrywort mother (played by a very good Ellie Haddington) and stubborn, irascible, son-of-a-bitch father (Ian Gelder, also good) — are a little more intriguing than they might have been in a different movie. It’s too easy for movies to give us these scenes, these quick tours of the fucked-up antihero’s emotional genetics, and ask us to do the quick math and say, “Ah, so that’s why he is.” But these scenes and others are oddly riveting. Watching Joseph’s father try to hook up a washing machine, refusing help, while everyone else just stands around — frustrated, but quiet about it — gains power from being so emotionally legible. They’re waiting around on this stubborn man and, well, so are we.
The chemistry of it all, with Whishaw as the anchor, makes for a good movie, not a great one. But the intensity of Surge’s scattered, myopic realism isn’t for naught. Even with its familiar visual and dramatic approach — the extent to which we are firmly, subjectively pushed into Joseph’s world and made to tumble around for a while amid his unpredictable behaviors — the movie packs an odd little punch. In the end, I wasn’t sure that I totally bought it. I also wasn’t sure that this really mattered.