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The Guilty review: Netflix snags a smart, tense thriller

Jake Gyllenhaal shines as a 9-11 dispatcher trying to save a woman in distress.
Streaming
By
September 28, 2021

Who picks up at the other end when you call 9-11? What can they really do for you, armed with little more than what you can convey over the phone? Netflix‘s latest original film The Guilty starts with that very simple premise and runs with it in a deeply satisfying way, crafting an intimate, suspenseful mystery that dares you to look away.

The Guilty is in cinemas in limited release as of September 24 following a Toronto International Film Festival premiere. It will have its Netflix debut on October 1 in the US and numerous global markets.

Read on for our review of The Guilty.

A suspenseful, complex mystery

The Guilty review Netflix
Netflix

Joe Baylor is a cop working 9-11 call dispatch. He’s a man struggling with a fraught marriage and some professional setbacks. This isn’t Joe’s regular job, and he’s not happy to be here. Compounded with the regular stress of the job and raging California wildfires is an upcoming court date. Joe’s off the streets and behind a desk because he’s under review for something he did. We don’t know what that is, but the pieces start to fall into place as The Guilty slowly chugs along.

But all of that personal struggle takes a back seat when Joe receives a call from Emily, a woman who’s been abducted. What kind of car is she in? Who is her kidnapper? Where are they heading? Are her kids ok at home, and can Joe keep his promise to get her back to them? The questions are hard to answer because everyone’s swamped with limited resources. Finding the vehicle that Emily’s in is nearly impossible. On a highway clouded in smoke, where cops are responding to emergencies all over LA, a barely-visible, nondescript white van with an unknown plate number and destination can slip by easily.

See also: The best dramas on Netflix

We don’t get to see much of that though. Not directly. The bulk of The Guilty is told from Joe’s very limited perspective, as he tries to get a handle on the situation that feels increasingly out of his grasp. Can he really get the full picture from where he sits? Is Emily in good hands as Joe scrambles to help her while fighting his own demons? And does he even understand what he’s dealing with?

The Guilty is directed by Antoine Fuqua (Training Day, The Equalizer) and based on a 2018 Danish film of the same name. Resetting the unfolding drama against California wildfires that are spreading emergency services thin, an ongoing reckoning with police brutality in America, and a justice system marked by various overlapping inequities, Fuqua and his team do an excellent job of reframing The Guilty as a distinctly American nightmare.

The tragedy of male rage

The Guilty review Netflix
Netflix

While The Guilty’s central abduction drives a great deal of the suspense and intrigue, the film is also a character study of Joe. Zeroing in on him — alone at a computer terminal while simultaneously connected to the people calling in — let’s us experience a night in LA entirely from his unique perspective.

Check out: We review Netflix’s Kate

But his perspective is deeply flawed. Joe is certainly not who most of us want on the other end of the line when we need help. He’s distracted. He’s impatient. His temper flares at the slightest provocation. And he has a god complex, thinking he can do everyone’s jobs better than them. That he ought to be out in the field instead of unjustly (in his mind, at least) benched like this.

Jake Gyllenhaal is in top form in this character study of a broken man desperate for control.

It’s a sharp and thoughtful portrait of both masculinity and policing. And of the unchecked power and destruction we find in both. As we watch Joe channel all of his anger and energy into helping Emily, it quickly becomes clear that this is a therapeutic outlet for him as much as an exercise in public service. He’s working through what went wrong with his marriage, coming to terms with his limitations as a father, and finally starting to tackle what he did to get reassigned to 9-11 duty. His frantic attempts to solve everything at once may very well cloud his abilities, though.

Jake Gyllenhaal brings an incredible depth to a character we might otherwise write off as a two-dimensional hot-head. That’s part of who Joe is, certainly, but it’s really just the surface of a tortured soul who barely knows how to exist in society anymore.

The verdict: The Guilty review

Netflix Jake Gyllenhaal
Netflix

The Guilty is a very welcome addition to Netflix’s growing fleet of original movies, and among the best American movies to come out so far this year. It’s the kind of mid-budget adult drama that seems to be having a resurgence thanks to streamers.

The film might get a bit less mileage from its shocking reveals if you’ve seen the Danish title it’s based on, but Gyllenhaal’s tortured performance and Fuqua’s tight direction make it a compelling character study in its own right. Some stand-out voice work by Riley Keough, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Peter Sarsgaard, and Ethan Hawke work brilliantly against Gyllenhaal’s frantic Joe, as disembodied voices at the other end of the line.

Don’t be surprised if Gyllenhaal’s name makes the rounds come awards season.