Producers: Jake Gyllenhaal, Riva Marker, David Litvak, Gary Michael Walters, David Haring, Michel Litvak, Svetlana Metkina, Antoine Fuqua, Scott Greenberg and Kat Samick Director: Antoine Fuqua Screenplay: Nic Pizzolatto Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Ethan Hawke, Riley Keough, Christiana Montoya, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, David Castañeda, Paul Dano, Peter Sarsgaard, Eli Goree, Beau Knapp, Edi Patterson, Gillian Zinser, Bill Burr, Dillon Lane and Marlene Forte Distributor: Netflix
Perhaps this adaptation of Gustav Möller’s well-received 2018 Danish thriller provides particularly acute evidence of one reason why such cross-language ventures are so difficult to pull off. In narrative terms, the differences are slight; Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance in what’s almost a one-character piece is superb; Antoine Fuqua’s direction is intense and energetic; and the cast recruited to voice the unseen supporting figures is impressive. Still, the English-language version is a near-miss, rather than the undisputed success the original was generally taken to be.
Why? The answer seems to lie in the dialogue. When one watches the subtitled “Den skyldige,” unless you understand Danish and can appreciate when it sounds just right (or wrong), you won’t be bothered by any infelicities in either the writing or the inflections; you accept the subtitles as flat approximations. Put into English, though, any slips or weaknesses are magnified, and they diminish the overall effect. That’s why “The Guilty” comes off second-best. While Gyllenhaal makes his lines sound real, those spoken by the off-screen performers frequently come across as stilted or clumsily delivered.
Still, the premise itself is strong enough to make it reasonably watchable—though, to be honest, the “watching” part is optional, since “The Guilty” could easily have been a radio play in the style of “Sorry, Wrong Number” (though, of course, that eventually became more familiar as a movie).
Gyllenhaal is Joe Baylor, a Los Angeles cop who’s been exiled to a desk job answering 911 calls because of a charge against him that is to be settled in court the very day after the night on which the action is set. He takes a call from a woman named Emily (voiced by Riley Keough), who he quickly realizes being held hostage in a vehicle driven by some threatening man; she’s pretending to be comforting her young daughter Abby. (This is hardly a new set-up: see, inter alia, the 2013 Halle Berry movie “The Call,” although on second thought don’t bother.)
Joe, who’s separated from his own wife and daughter, calls on other police resources to find the vehicle and rescue the woman, but their efforts are hampered by a lack of specifics and the fact that they’re spread thin by nearby wildfires. Eventually he uses the various tools at his disposal to connect with the distraught Abby (Christiana Montoya), who’s alone with her baby brother. He also deduces that the man holding Emily is her ex-husband Henry (Peter Sarsgaard). And by cajoling other cops—voiced by Eli Goree, Ethan Hawke, Da’Vine Joy Randolph and David Castañeda—he’s able to get help to Abby and track the location of Emily and Henry, even as he has to deal with other callers.
But there’s a twist not only forces Joe to see the situation in an entirely different light, but to reconsider his own plans to cover up his own misdeeds and get back on street duty. As it turns out, there’s plenty of guilt to go around, and accepting responsibility for what you’ve done is always difficult.
Gyllenhaal holds the movie together with a big, emotional performance that moves from cynicism to desperation, and the few other actors who appear in the flesh—notably Christina Vidal and Adrian Martinez as the other cops who put up with the increasingly overwrought Joe in the computer center—are solid as well. The feeling of claustrophobic volatility is enhanced by the work of the technical team—cinematographer Maz Makhani, production designer Peter Wenham, editor Jason Ballantine and composer Marcelo Zarvos.
Thanks to the mercurial Gyllenhaal, “The Guilty” holds your interest, but by the time Joe’s night shift is over, its contrivances have become rather oppressive.