Toronto Review: The Guilty
For those who’ve seen Gustav Möller’s 2018 debut The Guilty — Denmark’s Best International Film submission at the Oscars that year — there will be few surprises in store during the course of Antoine Fuqua’s American remake. The set-up is the same: a police officer, off the streets for some sort of disciplinary purpose, is on desk duty at an emergency services call center when he receives a call from a woman who appears to have been abducted. Confined to the call center, he tries to secure her safety through a variety of methods, all while fighting his own increasingly unstable emotional state.
English language remakes — especially those made so soon after their progenitors — have a high bar to clear in order to prove their value, particularly in a day and age where foreign cinema is more accessible than ever. As of this writing I can watch the 2018 version of The Guilty on Hulu, rent it from my service of choice, or pop over to my local library and pick up the DVD. If it’s that easy, why bother with a remake — and one that barely deviates from the beats of the original at that?
The answer to that question — and I say this with no disrespect towards Fuqua or writer Nic Pizzolatto, both of whom tend to produce work I enjoy more often than not — is Jake Gyllenhaal. Despite dabbles along the way with the handsome action hero archetype, Gyllenhaal has slowly but surely become one of our best and most compulsively watchable actors, and while he’s demonstrated impressive range over the years, he’s often at his best when he’s allowed to dip his toes into the weird and the unhinged.
Pizzolatto’s script (adapted from Möller and Emil Nygaard Albertsen’s original) gives him plenty of opportunity to sink into the latter. Gyllenhaal plays up both the simmering rage and the spiraling emotionality of a police officer whose life and very soul seem to be slipping away, refusing to either turn the character into a total monster or exonerate him of his unthinkable misdeeds. You aren’t going to like Officer Baylor, but Gyllenhaal is good enough — in all his twitchy, toxic glory — to make you pity him and hope that he can find a way to push aside his demons for the ninety or so minutes it takes to do the job the police are meant to do.
That the success of the endeavor rests almost solely on Gyllenhaal’s shoulders can be chalked up to Pizzolatto and Fuqua’s (wise) decision to retain the original’s central conceit: the film takes place in a single location, in quasi-real time. Aside from the few other operators floating around, the majority of the cast comprises voice performances only, and while these actors put in solid work, some of the illusion is broken when you can hear but not see some very recognizable figures — though I may just be easily distracted by the game of “wait, is that...Ethan Hawke?!”
Ironically, The Guilty falters most where it departs from its source material. Fuqua, whose sense of tension often impresses, can’t help but undercut the single location anxiety with hazy shots of imagined cars and highway, and — perhaps surprisingly, given Pizzolatto’s unrelenting dark work on True Detective — the script doesn’t feel comfortable reaching the same bleak depths that Möller and Albertsen mined, even though it shares many of the same credulity-stretching narrative elements.
If I were to make a recommendation to someone who’d missed the Danish film, I’d say do yourself a favor and watch that version. But if you’ve already had that experience and don’t mind a mere surface-level reworking, this new project is an impressive enough facsimile with — as we’ve come to expect from Gyllenhaal — a truly excellent performance at its core. I expect that one of these films will weather the test of time better than the other, but for the moment there’s no reason they can’t coexist.