‘The Guilty’: When the star outshines the film

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There used to be a time when I was able to watch two movies a week. Recently, I’ve had time for practically none, which is a shame considering the long list of much-anticipated Netflix releases due for October. However, when I heard about Jake Gyllenhaal’s new thriller that came out on Oct. 1, I realized I was willing to cut corners for one of my most admired actors, who I had not seen in a film since “Spider-Man: Far from Home.” Suddenly, the immense amount of work I was assigned for the week became minuscule in priority as I managed to reserve an extra hour-and-a-half slot to watch “The Guilty.” 

Gyllenhaal stars in “The Guilty” as Joe Baylor, a Los Angeles Police Department officer who works as a 911 call center operator while awaiting trial for an unknown charge. Baylor receives most of his calls with a flippant attitude, catering toward drug users and arrogant businessmen too embarrassed to admit that they were robbed by a prostitute. It isn’t until he answers a call from a woman named Emily (Riley Keough), who claims to have been abducted by her husband Henry (Peter Sarsgaard), that Baylor’s demeanor changes. 

While I’ve mentioned that Gyllenhaal is a well-admired actor of mine, I’ve never actually seen any of his best known work. Perhaps that sounds like an oxymoron, but to be fair, I think I’ve indulged in enough of his chaotic interviews to be able to deem him as a favorite. “Donnie Darko,” “Brokeback Mountain,” “Prisoners” and “Nightcrawler” are only some of the films I’ve made a promise to watch, but just never got around to. Seeing his performance in “The Guilty” was an opportunity to see a refreshing new side of Gyllenhaal, where instead of hearing him tell Stephen Colbert to “Bite where I bit,” I finally got to experience his craft in acting. 

It’s not that I ever underestimated Gyllenhaal, but nevertheless, I was blown away by his performance. Every negative emotion felt by Baylor — the frustration from not being able to find Emily’s location, the composure when talking to Emily’s six-year-old daughter Abby on the phone and the bursts of anger when interrogating Henry — were not just felt through the screen; they were acted out in a seamless manner that left you wondering whether it was Baylor’s or Gyllenhaal’s actual sweat that covered his face by the end of the film. 

My favorite moment — arguably the peak of Gyllenhaal’s performance — occurs when Baylor, in the midst of choking on tears, admits to Emily the nature of his charge: he had killed a 19-year-old on duty. His intention behind the act is left ambiguous, as he only says it was “because [he] could.” This poignant moment is then ruined minutes later when Joe’s supervisor tells him, “Broken people save broken people” — the distant-but-equally-generic cousin of “Hurt people hurt people.” 

“The Guilty” is surely not a bad film. It fulfills its purpose as a thriller, as I was in fact “thrilled” into a slight panic at times, and its unique approach to depict everything from Baylor’s desk at the call center — with the exception of a couple blurry shots of cars and patrol units — introduced a more immersive perspective to audiences. The only faces we ultimately get to see are Baylor’s and his colleagues’, while the rest are portrayed solely through their voices. 

Unfortunately, the film just wasn’t that impressive to me. It’s a slow run all the way until the 45-minute mark, when a patrol unit reaches Emily’s home and the plot finally begins to escalate. The film’s later twist was interesting yet predictable, and I’m not sure what to think of its questionable pro-police message. 

And so, the key redeeming element of “The Guilty” is none other than our lord and savior Jake Gyllenhaal, whose performance alone is enough to make the movie worth seeing (I would also like to credit Ethan Hawke and Paul Dano for voicing their characters so well that I didn’t even realize they were part of the cast until after the film ended). “The Guilty” may not have convinced me to enjoy the crime thriller genre as much as I would have hoped, but I am convinced to watch more Gyllenhaal films. 

Rating: 3/5 

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