The 2021 film The Guilty has many of the ingredients for a successful thriller. It has an intriguing premise, a reliable lead, and a concise runtime. And even after seeing it, I can confirm that it’s a perfectly fine piece of entertainment. Yet for everything that the movie accomplishes, it fails in one major regard: it doesn’t make itself distinct. This might be easier to stomach if this was a low-grade television movie. However, this film has the backing of Hollywood producers and an A-list actor, which makes the staleness stand out more.
Without a doubt, the biggest weight on The Guilty‘s shoulders is the fact it is an American remake of a fairly recent movie. Specifically, it adapts a 2018 Danish film directed and co-written by Gustav Möller (also titled The Guilty). Most American remakes take the nuance of the source material and add a thick layer of gloss to it, regardless if it makes sense. And unfortunately, this 2021 iteration does the same thing. Enjoyed the 2018 original for its deliberate choice to make its single location as visually mundane as possible? Too bad, the equivalent location in the 2021 film is now indistinguishable from the elaborate offices you see in dozens of American movies.
To the movie’s credit, it keeps the essential elements of what came before. Our main character is demoted police officer Joe Bayler (Jake Gyllenhaal), who now spends his time answering emergency calls. One day, he receives a cryptic call from a woman named Emily (Riley Keough). At first, it seems like Emily wanted to call her child and instead called emergency services on accident. But it soon becomes clear that she is secretly reporting her own abduction. Shaken by this, Joe tries whatever he can to ensure her safety. Eventually, he gets so wrapped up in the situation he has no choice but to break a few boundaries.
As far as the fundamentals go, Nic Pizzolatto’s screenplay does a fine job at escalating the tension. Sure, it’s not much more than a simple English translation of Moller & Emil Nygaard Albertsen’s original work. In fact, there are at least a handful of dialogue exchanges that are direct lifts from the earlier movie. Still, it maintains a fast enough momentum for it to go by smoothly. If there’s any place the script falters, it’s in the half-hearted attempts to add a new spin. Early on, it establishes that it takes place during the 2020 California wildfires. However, all this does is define a background setting and nothing else. At no point do the fires themselves become a significant part of the story.
But the lack of narrative relevance is far from the only problem the wildfires introduce. Since production designer Peter Wenham crowds the office walls with TV screens – and the fires themselves are breaking news – the movie frequently reminds the audience of their presence. This might not seem like a problem since the plot does not center around people who have to deal with bursting into flames. However, the wildfires soon become a visual motif that represents the high-stakes scenario at its core. And any sort of visual aid goes against what made the original shine: its valiant refusal to be visually stimulating. This might sound counterproductive, but given its intentions as an audio-based thriller, the restrained approach makes sense.
I suppose part of the problem comes down to Antoine Fuqua’s glossy directing style. Almost everything he touches has a visual impact, and the same applies here. With the help of cinematographer Maz Makhani, The Guilty embraces a teal and orange color palette that makes the characters pop. Taken in a vacuum, this approach allows the movie to feel like it has a sizable budget. But in the context of a movie that should be audio-intensive, Fuqua’s direction clashes with the material. This heightened aesthetic even extends to the performances, with Gyllenhaal becoming more visibly intense as the story progresses.
Mind you, none of this is to say that the 2021 iteration of The Guilty is bad. At worst, it’s a remake that changes the original in ways that don’t really matter. But for those who want to take the movie on its own terms, there’s a fair amount of things to like. After all, it’s a solid reminder that Gyllenhaal has not lost his luster as a movie star. I have a hard time imagining someone having an unpleasant time watching this. But in an age where international films are easily accessible, is it really that hard to jump over that one-inch barrier of subtitles? – Mark Tan
The Guilty (2021) will stream on October 1, 2021 on Netflix.