It’s no surprise Jake Gyllenhaal responded so enthusiastically to Denmark’s 2018 film The Guilty that he snapped up the rights to a remake where he would produce and star. In his story of a cop temporarily reassigned to 9-11 duty who winds up way over his skis handling an abduction call, director / co-writer Gustav Möller ran a gauntlet of clouded and cleared judgment while retaining vice-grip urgency and boot-to-stomach surprises. It interrogated our intrinsic assessment of individuals and incidents with incomplete information, making us question enough about its main character’s motivations to rattle our rooting interest.
In other words, The Guilty is ripe for infusion with the legendarily troubling, wearying and lamentable pretexts of hubris and harm under which American law enforcement operates — particularly when set in a Los Angeles that’s literally on fire. It’s one of few new flourishes added by screenwriter / True Detective impresario Nic Pizzolatto and an image on which Gyllenhaal’s Southpaw director, Antoine Fuqua, fixates to the point where it feels like a This is Fine yule log.
There are only so many lines to add to this kind of plan. At least this version, in theaters today ahead of an Oct. 1 streaming premiere on Netflix, doesn’t just add an act and call it an Americanization. Set aside the fire, the city, the names and, of course, the English language, and Pizzolatto really only changes three other considerable things from the original. The problem is all of them are fruitless or feckless, including 2021’s most bone-headed unforced narrative error — a pivotal shift that vindicates, with a hand-wave homily, all of the choices that the original questioned with complexity, tact and no easy solutions. These alterations create a depressingly short-pantsed version of the original, also done no favors by Fuqua going into his occasional Anonymous-Functional Mode.
Doing very heavy lifting to little avail, Gyllenhaal plays Joe, a judgmental, asthmatic hothead answering late-shift 9-11 calls. He scolds an overdosing speed user who seeks Joe’s help for even taking drugs in the first place and berates an alleged VIP for facilitating his own robbery. Joe loathes the post, a temporary reassignment as he rides out an investigation that hinges on his partner’s testimony the next morning. But then a woman named Emily calls, initially speaking to Joe as if he were a child. Joe presumes she’s drunk, but his instincts kick in as he deduces that Emily is in a vehicle with someone against her will.
Dancing around any details that would alert Emily’s captor, Joe gets her to reveal some information he can use. From there, he damns the torpedoes and the torpor of 9-11 protocols to engage a California Highway Patrol dispatch officer tied up by wildfire calls, an old sergeant now on the same randomized rotation as Joe, and even Joe’s on-the-spot partner, Rick. (Some big names play the faceless folks on the other side of Joe’s phone. Consider it the nice-or-nothing-at-all designation that this review will save those reveals for the credits.)
Gyllenhaal’s hair-trigger turn certainly hits the same notes as Jakob Cedergren’s gradually escalating performance in the original film. Joe never says it, but you can sense him plotting some potential day-saving deliverance from his pending prosecution if he can save this woman. Unlike the original, this (mostly) one-man show simply doesn’t trust its man, saddling him with new, perfunctory exchanges on the phone with an estranged wife and insisting Gyllenhaal hit fortissimo histrionics for 90 minutes like the lowest-common dudebro version of Detective Loki from Prisoners. Only in a climactic scene does Gyllenhaal convey the generally immovable weight on Joe’s chest. But even that is undone by isolating Joe in this moment that previously played out in a painfully, uncomfortably and necessarily open space.
It might seem facile to slam The Guilty for not matching its ancestor beat for beat. But it only nails a portion of the tempo. For those who haven’t seen the original, The Guilty might retain enough of the depth-charge developments to feel passable. But even to narrative newcomers, Pizzolatto’s final folly of a blue-line back-pat will feel flimsy — more at home in a church sermon than a tense deconstruction of the macho miscalculations so often involved in our law-enforcement culture. In this version of The Guilty, every convincing piece of culpability has been carved out. Something is rotten in the state of Denmark, alright, and it’s this amateurish American response to its captivating thriller.