Film Review: The Guilty (2021)

Spoilers ahead!

Cool poster for the American version of the film.

I gotta say: For perhaps the first time ever, I watched a Jake Gyllenhaal film and didn’t love it! The quietly dropped Netflix film this week, The Guilty, is based on a Danish film of the same name from 2018.

The film follows Gyllenhaal’s character, Joe, who is police detective demoted to 9-1-1 operator. He gets a call from a presumably kidnapped woman, Emily (played by Riley Keough) and has to figure out what’s going on to save her life. She seems to have been kidnapped by her husband, Henry (played by Peter Sarsgaard), after he killed their baby boy and left their six-year-old daughter home alone with the corpse.

So, the Danish film is bugging me because I can’t remember if I’ve seen it or not. I have a memory in my head of a foreign film that follows a dispatcher trying to help a kidnapped woman, which sounds exactly like the Danish film except I recall the dispatcher being a woman, not a man, hence my confusion. Maybe my memory is wrong.

I just watched the trailer for the Danish film and they really remade the foreign film almost piece-by-piece: In one of the opening scenes to establish Joe as a dispatcher, he gets a call from a person tripping out on drugs and Joe responds, “It’s your fault, isn’t it?” That’s word-for-word from the Danish film.

Even though I love Gyllenhaal as an actor and find him extremely likable, I did not like his character at all here. He was a jerk and so, I was a having a hard time getting into the drama and tension of the film. Obviously, him being a jerk is intentional because the arc of the film is a character study about Joe more than it is about this abduction per se. He’s funneling all of his professional and personal hopes into “doing the right thing” on this case, as if that’ll make everything else okay. But still, I didn’t care to see his redemption arc!

I also figured out rather quickly that Emily wasn’t actually kidnapped and something else was afoot. I was simply waiting for that revelation, again killing the tension of the film for me.

The only thing that really pulled me in was the disturbing image of Emily describing how she wanted to get the “snakes” out of baby Oscar’s stomach and that’s why she cut him open (he still ended up presumably surviving, as we learn later he’s in the ICU).

If anything, Joe’s actual reason for being demoted would have made a more interesting story to me. He shot a teen and then he, still being a scumbag cop at the time and his scumbag cop friend, were all too willing to lie to save Joe’s butt from jail. The situation with Emily ends up turning Joe into a guy with a conscious apparently and he reneges on that plan.

Let me be clear, though: I do think Gyllenhaal put on a good performance as he always does here, though, playing the at once distraught Joe turned angry Joe turned sympathetic Joe; it’s just, the story wasn’t for me.

On the basis of Gyllenhaal’s performance, I would recommend the film despite what I’ve said above.

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