'The Guilty' review: Jake Gyllenhaal does anything but phone it in

Gyllenhaal plays the world's most intense 911 operator in this contained thriller from director Antoine Fuqua.

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

Jake Gyllenhaal doesn't move much in "The Guilty." In fact, he doesn't do much of anything, besides sit behind the desk at a Los Angeles call center and speak on the phone. While there are worse people to watch talk on a headset, it's admittedly not the most exciting premise for a thriller.  

But the thrills are all on the other end of the line, and in the way that Gyllenhaal's character reacts to them. "The Guilty" is a remake of a 2018 Danish thriller that worked wonders in the way that it held viewers in its grip despite minimal on-screen action. This version, directed by gun blazer Antoine Fuqua, isn't quite as effective, but is a worthy exercise in contained chaos. 

Jake Gyllenhaal in "The Guilty."

Gyllenhaal plays Joe Baylor, an LAPD officer who has been temporarily relegated to desk duty and is taking calls at a 911 emergency center. During a shift, Joe receives a phone call from Emily (Riley Keough, heard and not seen) whom he believes to be kidnapped. And so begins a game of cat and mouse where we only see the cat and the mouse is left to our imaginations. 

The cat, however, is doing his best to make sure there's always something to watch. Gyllenhaal doesn't just take these phone calls, he takes these phone calls, his arms flexing, his brows furling, his upper lip sweating, his eyes popping, his shoulders carrying the weight of the world. He overcompensates for "The Guilty's" lo-fi look and production — rights to the story were acquired several years ago, but it was a perfect small-scale movie to shoot during COVID — and almost overwhelms the simplicity of its premise. 

Almost, but not quite. "The Guilty" is a solid if unremarkable thrill ride, with several twists in store that reframe the story we're watching unfold. Fuqua rarely plays things this small — earlier this year he went way over-the-top with "Infinite" — but "The Guilty" shows that if he has to, he can do a lot with a little, especially if it's Gyllenhaal who's doing the lifting. 

agraham@detroitnews.com

@grahamorama

'The Guilty'

GRADE: B-

Rated R: for language throughout 

Running time: 90 minutes

On Netflix