“Does this movie need to exist?” has always been an annoying question. Because really: does any book, film, song, or piece of art need to exist? They’re there because someone decided they wanted to devote money and talent to creating something, not because there was a clear imperative for it to be developed. That said…does The Guilty need to exist? It’s pretty much a shot-for-shot remake of a Danish film by the same title that came out just a few years ago and, aside from Jake Gyllenhaal giving his best effort, it doesn’t contribute anything new or exciting. It’s not bad, but it’s made for Americans who can’t be bothered to read subtitles, and that feels like the worst reason of all to make anything.
Gyllenhaal plays Joe Baylor, a Los Angeles police officer who is currently doing the rounds as a 911 operator while awaiting a hearing for a mysterious incident that occurred on-duty several months prior, which we only learn small details about over the course of the film. He’s bored, frustrated, and can’t wait to get off the clock. But when he gets a call from a woman in crisis (Riley Keough), he snaps to attention. From the way that she’s talking, it becomes clear to Joe that she’s in a car with someone, and she doesn’t want that someone to know that she’s called 911. This is Joe’s chance to save the day, to be the hero instead of the troubled cop facing disciplinary action. But not everything is as it seems, and the more we learn about the situation, the less sense it all makes.
All of this is, thus far, essentially an exact duplicate of the Danish film. It’s hard to get excited about a movie that shows so little imagination, and is not only unable to improve on the original, but manages to be a tiny bit worse in every aspect. Part of what made the Danish The Guilty so compelling was the claustrophobia. Everything was pared down to its most basic, fundamental level until you just had this guy, practically in a box, reacting in real-time to an intensely dramatic emergency call.
The Hollywoodization of the film, if anything, detracts from what gives the story its tension and emotional resonance. The fancier and more well-equipped the 911 station, the more frequently you’re reminded that it’s all just a movie. Director Antoine Fuqua fails to realize that the utter mundanity is what draws audiences to this story initially, a certain grounded, down-to-earth quality. The Guilty, with its expansive, expensive sets and A-lister movie star in Jake Gyllenhaal, is lacking. Sometimes Hollywood’s ability to throw money at a remake of a lower-budget film can flesh out ideas that the original was unable to execute due to lack of funds, but that’s certainly not the case here. If anything, it increases a sense of artificiality that flies in the face of the original’s authenticity.
What’s perhaps even more frustrating is that this version of the film is less willing to go for the jugular than the original. There are dark moments in The Guilty, horrifying, gruesome visuals made all the more powerful by the fact that we don’t ever actually see them, they live in our imaginations. But they are frequently undercut by this film’s need to be palatable, to cater to the middle. It wants to have its gut-wrenching, shocking realization, but it also wants the freedom to walk it back before it harshes the vibe too much. It’s cowardly filmmaking, and it does The Guilty no favors.
Is there any arena in which this version of The Guilty improves on or even matches the quality of the original? There are some intriguing cameos in the voiceover roles of callers Joe speaks to, but they give little added punch. Bill Burr, for instance, gets a great moment as someone who calls 911 and is so frustrated by Joe’s lackluster service that he hangs up in exasperation, resolving to handle the emergency on his own. Riley Keough puts in a compelling performance as the woman at the other end of the line, with a whispery, fragile demeanor that draws Joe in and forces him to try to help her. But beyond the brief and fleeting spark of recognition when you hear the voice of an actor you can identify, there’s little else to recommend it. Is it bad, or just completely and wholly unnecessary? At the end of the day, does it really make a difference?