The Movie Guru: Netflix’s “The Guilty” packs a punch
Grade: two and a half stars
It takes awhile for Netflix’s “The Guilty” to hit you.
The movie, which opens in theaters this week before moving to Netflix next week, is a pretty direct remake of the 2018 movie of the same name. Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance is fantastic, but it’s not nearly as lean a thriller as the original. It’s too distracted by emotions and what seem like attempts at social commentary, and by about halfway through I had dismissed it as a good, but flawed duplicate.
Then it got me.
The movie follows a cop (played by Gyllenhaal), forced to temporarily work as a 911 operator. We hear references to him having to go to court the next day — anyone who watches the news can guess why — and he’s unhappily suffering through his last day. Then a seemingly innocuous call turns into something far more serious, and he gets pulled deeper and deeper into an unfolding case.
Anyone who’s seen a cop show in the last 10 years will be familiar with the rhythms of the developing story. Gyllenhaal’s character has a temper and can be incredibly dismissive, but he’s also clearly broken about not being able to see his daughter.
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When he finds out that a woman in danger is a mother, he starts bending the rules and crossing lines in order to get her the help she needs. They’re starker in the movie’s quiet rooms than they seem to be out on the streets, more wince-inducing, but the movie is full enough we can brush past them. There are twists and turns, but it feels more like a standard detective movie than a sharp-edged thriller like the original.
Then it starts to fall apart. The assumptions Gyllenhaal has been working with the entire time, the “instincts” that every television detective use to smash their way through a case, are all entirely wrong. The consequences start to pile up. The cost starts to climb. Our “hero” is anything but heroic.
The movie doesn’t have the scope to comment on modern day policing, but it’s an absolutely searing indictment of Hollywood’s version of the American Police Officer. There’s so much we excuse because everything works out in the end, because “justice is done” and “bad guys” are put away, but in real life we know it doesn’t. Cops break the rules, but they often get it wrong. People die. What are our excuses worth then?
The fact that Gyllenhaal’s performance is largely sympathetic only makes the message hit harder. He’s as horrified by the way things unfold as we are, desperately scrambling to catch the crumbling pieces before everything shatters completely, and Gyllenhaal sells every second of it. He takes a clear look at his life for the first time, and it nearly destroys him.
Maybe those of us in the audience should take a clear look, too.
Jenniffer Wardell is an award-winning movie critic and member of the Denver Film Critics Society. Find her on Twitter at @wardellwriter or drop her a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.