Movie Review: The Guilty (2021)

TL;DR – Joe Baylor receives a 911 call from a woman claiming she has been abducted, and it becomes a race against time to find her. But when all the information you get is via audio only, can you trust everything you’re hearing?

Review (warning: spoilers)

The Guilty opens with a bible quote, “And the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32). It then dives into a Los Angeles on fire. Wildfires spread through the region causing chaos everywhere.

Asthmatic Joe Baylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) works at a 911 call centre. He receives a call on his personal mobile from a journalist, Katherine Harbor, of the LA Times seeking to get “Joe’s side of the story”. From the get go, it is clear Joe is dealing with personal issues across the entire gauntlet of being human – physical, emotional and mental. And he is trying to deal with these issues while also working in a high stress environment where emergency callers are phoning in ranging from a guy needing an ambulance because he’s taken drugs to a businessman who has been robbed in his car by a prostitute. Joe does his best to remain calm throughout and handles all the calls professionally even when he’s getting verbally abused. But unlike the callers phoning in, we can see he is one nudge away from bursting a vein.

The personal issues surround the fact that he is actually a police officer who has been assigned duty on the 911 calls while he awaits a court hearing tomorrow involving the shooting death of a 19-year old man. We also discover he has a daughter named Paige and a wife, Jess, that he has been separated now for six months even though he still wears his wedding ring. As the movie unfolds, it becomes clear that Joe is under investigation and his partner, Rick, is to testify as a witness to the shooting. You pick up pretty quickly that this may be a case of excessive police brutality resulting in a death that should not have occurred.

Joe then receives a 911 call from Emily Lighton (Riley Keough). Emily sounds distressed but does not clearly articulate why she has called 911. Joe initially thinks she’s drunk, but he then hears a man’s voice in the background and he deduces she has been taken against her will. He proceeds to ask yes and no questions and pieces together she’s been abducted.

The movie’s strength and delivery of thrills comes from its lead actor, the fact that virtually all scenes are from the confines of the 911 call centre and the voices from the people on the other end of the phone.

Joe goes above and beyond to piece together what has happened and he concludes the following: 1) Emily has been abducted by her husband, Henry Fisher (who has served time previously for a DUI), 2) They have a daughter, Abby, and a baby son, Oliver, who has been left home alone, and 3) Oliver has been killed by Henry.

As the film progresses, you can see Joe is unravelling. He starts breaking protocols and doing things that you would not be allowed to do when working in a 911 call centre. For example, he is able to get Henry’s phone number and calls him directly, unleashing a diatribe of anger, yelling at Henry to give himself up and return Emily unharmed. Another example involves him calling his sergeant, Bill Miller (Ethan Hawke) to get an officer to go to Henry’s place and “kick down his door”. Joe’s emotional entanglement in Emily’s fate is driven by the one thing that he has refused to acknowledge.

That he is guilty of manslaughter, killing a 19-year old man in the line of duty, when he didn’t need to.

His desperation for redemption is through saving Emily. But the twist comes when he discovers, to his horror, that Emily is the one responsible for hurting Oliver, her son. Turns out that she suffers from a mental disorder, took a knife to her crying baby boy because she thought he was in pain with snakes in his belly. This is done all over the phone, so you don’t see any of this, but from the audio alone, you feel the horror that Joe feels. Henry is actually trying to take Emily to a psychiatric hospital. There’s flaws in all of this because Henry should have called the ambulance and the police. The fact he tries to whisk Emily away to a psychiatric hospital leaving Abby and Oliver by themselves is illogical (all the more so because he would have found that Emily had hurt Oliver). That aside, Joe realises his mistake. When he eventually is able to get a hold of Emily, she’s standing on an overpass overlooking the freeway and you know she is contemplating suicide. Joe pleads with her saying the Abby and Henry needs her, but it is only when he confesses to the shooting of the 19-year old man that Emily pauses.

By confessing his guilt, he saves Emily and later finds out that Oliver has not been killed but is in intensive care. The film ends with Joe calling Rick and telling him to testify to the truth and recant his original statement, which assumes that Joe did everything by the book in the shooting. Joe then calls Katherine Harbor and tells her he’s going to plead guilty to manslaughter.

The pressure valve is released. Though Joe knows he will serve years in prison and not see his daughter, he knows he has taken the correct course and will not be eaten away by guilt.

And thus, the truth has made him free.

Gyllenhaal is in fine form throughout the film. I was unaware at the time that The Guilty is an American remake of a Danish film of the same name. From what I can gather, the Danish original is far superior, but having not seen it, I am free to view the American remake without bias. Through those lens, I enjoyed the thrills this movie delivered.

7.5 out of 10

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