The Guilty should be primed for easy thrills, but Fuqua’s bland direction and the Scriptwriter 101 screenplay sap the film of any tension.
Antoine Fuqua has made a career out of directing populist, middlebrow fare that seeks nothing more than to entertain audiences for a few hours with slick, soulless thrills. It’s not that Fuqua is necessarily a bad filmmaker, but he’s the epitome of a competent director, which is damning enough commentary in its own right. But even Fuqua’s ardent defenders may find themselves grasping for a defense with The Guilty, the director’s second dud of 2021 after the dunderheaded Infinite. A remake of the 2018 Swedish thriller of the same name, The Guilty finds Jake Gyllenhaal in a mostly one-man-show as Joe, a volatile LAPD officer forced into 911 dispatch duty after some vague on-the-job incident has him headed to court in less than 24 hours. Set against the backdrop of the California wildfires — in a vain attempt to evoke tension and throw in a few monkey wrenches plot-wise — Joe finds himself on the receiving end of a phone call in which a young woman (voiced by Riley Keough) claims to have been abducted by her crazed and violent ex-husband. Unable to leave the facility, and using only a headset and the computer rig in front of him, Joe desperately tries to locate the woman before it’s too late, setting up a race-against-the-clock thriller seen and heard entirely from the perspective of our office-bound protagonist.
In premise alone, The Guilty seems to have tension baked into its DNA, with its claustrophobic, chamber piece-style setting and metaphorically handcuffed hero. But against all odds, Fuqua somehow manages to forfeit even this seemingly unassailable in-built tension with a spate of bland directorial choices that signal a filmmaker who just doesn’t care. There’s no distinctive style present in this setting so potentially ripe for formal play, no interesting camera set-ups or compositions. His style here is strictly point-and-shoot, with an overriding notion that the editing can save the day, a feat which proves impossible for Jason Ballantine, who seems equally asleep at the wheel. It doesn’t help that the script from Nic Pizzolatto is beyond lame, offering up a late-film plot twist that viewers will see coming from a mile away, and a protagonist who is far too unlikeable even for an antihero (Pizzolatto’s thing). Gyllenhaal, in what is essentially a one-man show, gives roughly 110 percent, as always, but is forced to play such a tired cliché that even his familiar mania can’t bring life or real energy to the proceedings. His backstory is straight out of Scriptwriting 101, and before long the film becomes yet another tale of personal redemption and atonement — fixed here on a bad cop; yikes — and is capped by the howlingly funny climactic line: “Broken people save broken people.” Journeyman genre director Brad Anderson actually delivered a similar tale eight years ago with The Call, a low-budget studio thriller starring Halle Berry that rather embraced the inherent silliness of its premise and delivered some fine-tuned genre thrills. No such luck with The Guilty, which is far too serious-minded for such shenanigans, entirely draining the film of any sort of fun in the process. If Fuqua’s film is guilty of anything, it’s in wasting the time of everyone involved with this rote, unimaginative drek. Let’s just hope the director doesn’t have another film up his sleeve before year’s end; we all need time to recover from this cinematic crime.
You can stream Antoine Fuqua’s The Guilty on Netflix beginning on October 1.
Originally published as part of TIFF 2021 — Dispatch 3.