“The Guilty” is a solidly suspenseful police procedural thriller about a 911 call and what the dispatcher goes through to end the tragedy unfolding on the other end of the line.
Like other films of this subgenre — Halle Berry’s “The Call,” for instance — the action takes place in “real time,” from just before that dispatcher (Jake Gyllenhaal) gets the endangered woman on the phone, to that situation’s conclusion.
The first twist here is that LA operator #625, Joe Baylor, is a demoted LAPD cop, and the second is that he’s about to go through some things that have nothing to do with this temporary duty. He’s due in court, defending his career, the next day.
This adaptation of a Swedish thriller (“Den Skyldige”) takes us and Joe on something of a roller coaster ride of panic topped by panic, as caller “Emily” (the voice of Riley Keough) is unable to speak freely, and Joe snaps into his training like a seasoned professional, asking “Yes or no questions” to ascertain her threat level.
“Do you know the person you’re with? Do they have a weapon? Have you been abducted?”
“Guilty” sticks with Joe, barking rudely at his colleagues in the call center, scrambling to dispatch California Highway Patrol, trying to ascertain the make, color and type of vehicle Emily is in, guessing who is driving the car and has taken her, directing CHP to the highway they’re on.
A big complication and new California wrinkle in this Antoine Fuqua (scripted by Nic Pizzolatto) adaptation? The mountains around the city are on fire. Emergency services are overwhelmed. There’s smoke and ash and it’s the middle of the night. Just ID’ing a vehicle under those conditions is going to be nigh on impossible.
The script and Gyllenhaal’s performance of it establish Joe’s character in a few quick strokes, mostly earlier calls. He has the arrogance we’ve come to associate with the badge and an irritability earned through years of experience.
The caller in a stoned panic over the hellish breathing conditions and confusion of an apocalyptic fire gets a little “I understand, but it’s your own fault, isn’t it?” A bicycle who’s chosen this moment to get earns an even more snappish “don’t ride your bike drunk, ass—e!”
Joe reaches out to officers on duty (Ethan Hawke voices his sergeant and former watch commander, Eli Goree plays his old partner), tries to get his ex on the phone so that he can tell his daughter “Good night,” fends off calls from a persistent newspaper reporter and becomes more agitated as the night wears on.
That’s when he starts crossing lines, urging others into dangerous, unadvisable actions or behavior that breaks the law.
Some of the third act twists in this I went with, and some seem inorganic — shoved in as a way of piling up surprises.
The heated arguments with assorted other dispatchers in his office, and on the phone from other agencies, point toward “maybe this isn’t the job for you.” And yet the guy’s experience in the field sends him to the right database here, the right “guess who took her” there.
Gyllenhaal makes Joe fascinating to watch, pretty much first scene to last, pretty much stuck in one location and on (more or less) one set. Joe curses and barks at other adults, but he softens considerably when he gets Emily’s little girl phone, assuring her that everything’s going to be OK, trying to convince her that “we,” the police, “we protect people who need help,” even if the kid isn’t buying it.
The ground covered is a tad overfamiliar, Gyllenhaal’s reactions predictably over the top and even the tropes of the genre (“real time”) can seem unsurprising and overplayed. But Fuqua makes every minute of screen time count, maintaining the suspense and claustrophobia even in those stretches where he takes the foot off the gas.
Rating: R, for language (profanity) throughout
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Christina Vidal and Adrian Martinez, and the voices of Riley Keough, Peter Sasrgaard, Ethan Hawke and Da’Vine Joy Randolph.
Credits: Directed by Antoine Fuqua, scripted by Nic Pizzolatto, based on the Swedish film “Den Skyldige,” scripted by Emil Nygaard Gustav Möller. A Netflix release.
Running time: 1:31