In this age of superhero team-ups and ensemble comedies, films crafted to rely almost solely on the performance of one actor are rarer than they have ever been. Obviously, every film features a lead character or two but the new Netflix film The Guilty is a true character study. It stays quite exclusively with Jake Gyllenhaal‘s Joe Baylor in a 911 call center in the middle of the night when one call changes everything for him.
Baylor is actually an LAPD cop who is only serving as an emergency dispatcher while he awaits a court hearing. Over the course of the film, we learn that he killed a young man while on duty. He seems short-tempered in general as he fields call after call; one being a visiting businessman being robbed by a prostitute. Everything changes when a terrified woman calls in and Joe deduces that she’s been abducted by her ex-husband, leaving their small daughter and infant son alone at home.
How this particular case unfolds (which I won’t spoil) creates a fundamental change in Baylor. The role really provides a showcase for an actor, and Gyllenhaal takes advantage of it. Impatience, desperation, self-hatred — they’re all there in his expressions, mannerisms, and line readings as Joe struggles to find the kidnapped woman and reunite her with her children. There is also a knockout conversation with the woman, which almost qualifies as a monologue, in which the audience sees Joe connect what’s happening on the call with his own situation.
The effect is superb, and Gyllenhaal is excellent. Because the emotion in the scene is so overt, an actor could easily misstep into theatrical overemoting. Gyllenhaal simply lets it peak and then fades out. He consistently delivers the depth required of a narrative that focuses on one character.
This is the second team-up between star Gyllenhaal and director Antoine Fuqua, after the 2015 boxing drama Southpaw. The story this time around necessitates a closed-in atmosphere. You might even call it claustrophobic. The glass walls of the call center’s rooms and its hallway, with a couple of trips to the bathroom (though not for a shower, of course, haha!), confine Joe’s physical space. Fuqua manages to make the visual feel more expansive, and he does this by paradoxically going even smaller most of the time. Close-ups on Gyllenhaal’s face fill the screen to emphasize the emotional stakes for this character. (Gyllenhaal also has eyelashes plenty would envy.)
This movie may be a character study but it is also a thriller. The call from the abducted woman is the starting place for a stunning build-up of dramatic tension, and what follows is unforgettable. Including one unpredictable, devastating plot twist that will kick you in the gut. Again, I won’t spoil it but you will know exactly which moment I’m talking about when you see it.
Viewers of the 2018 Danish film of the same name, on which this is based, probably have more criticisms with the story. Is the conclusion a little too neat? Probably. Is there something problematic about a film asking us to care about a cop who killed a teenager? Possibly. There is a success, however, in the theme expressed in the film’s opening text card quote from the Bible: “And the truth shall set you free.”
Gyllenhaal’s captivating performance reveals a man who does decide to face the truth of his guilt and achieves his emotional freedom if not his physical. The Guilty may essentially be a one-man show but it is a strong viewing experience whether that idea appeals to you or not. It makes thrilling use of its economical hour-and-a-half runtime, making the audience forget that they haven’t really left the building.
The Guilty is available on Netflix.