Netflix's Thriller 'The Guilty' Puts Jake Gyllenhaal in an Emergency Pressure Cooker

This remake of a 2018 Danish film adds fire, sweat, and even more capital-A acting to an already intense set-up.

jake gyllenhaal in the guilty
Netflix

When Jake Gyllenhaal opens his eyes, everything else on screen fades into the background. It was true back in 2001 when he played a time-looping, bunny-rabbit-following emo teen in Donnie Darko, using his blank stare to summon youthful feelings of alienation, confusion, and suburban despair. In The Day After Tomorrow, his eyes took in the apocalypse; in Jarhead, they observed the horror of war; in Zodiac, they absorbed the immensity of evil. At some point, probably around the time he starred in Denis Villeneuve's grim 2013 drama Prisoners or Dan Gilroy's sleek 2014 thriller Nightcrawler, Gyllenhaal's expressive eyes became less reactive and more proactive. They became sentient.

The Guilty, a new Netflix drama directed by Antoine Fuqua (Training Day, the Gyllenhaal-starring boxing movie Southpaw), is a stripped-down showcase for Gyllenhaal's maximalist style of acting. A fairly straightforward remake of a 2018 Danish film of the same name, the thriller follows LAPD 911 operator Joe (Gyllenhaal) as he attempts to solve a mystery from the confines of his desk, with most of the action taking place completely off screen as he juggles phone calls and deals with a personal crisis. The adaptation, penned by True Detective creator Nic Pizzolatto, has a touch of the '00s phone thrillers like Phone Booth or Cellular with a dash of Hitchockian suspense. (If you like radio dramas or dramatic podcasts, it might remind you of those as well.) But mostly the story, which plays out almost entirely within the walls of the police station, creates a controlled environment for Gyllenhaal, hair cut short and biceps bulging from his short sleeves, to rummage through his actor-ly toolkit.

jake gyllenhaal in the guilty
Netflix

As Joe's day gets worse, Gyllenhaal responds with new facial twitches, beads of sweat, carefully deployed tears, and, inevitably, a stream of vomit pouring out of his mouth. Early in the film, Joe gets a call from a woman (Riley Keough) who sounds like she might have misdialed or could be under the influence. Before he hangs up, he figures out that she's actually being held against her will in a roaming white van and that she's pretending to talk to her child while her captor listens nearby. Joe's desire to save her dovetails with his own lingering legal issues, which snap into focus as the clock ticks away and the night grows more stressful. If you get phone anxiety calling customer service, this will not be a relaxing night of streaming.

The rather small yet significant differences between Fuqua's more muscular The Guilty and the spare original, which is currently available on Hulu, are telling: This version opens with LA ablaze, immediately raising the stakes for Joe's shift; Joe's domestic struggles, including a separation that's left him staying at an Airbnb and watching too much TV every night, are foregrounded more in the narrative; and the camera, reportedly coordinated by Fuqua from a socially distanced van off set, roams a bit more freely, occasionally leaving the station for the world outside. Pizzolatto's script lifts plenty of details from the Danish version, but also turns up the anger and rage of the protagonist, giving Gyllenhaal bigger moments of indignation and remorse to play. In the original, Jakob Cedergren gave a classic slow-burn performance. Gyllenhaal's approach is to go full man-on-fire from the jump.

While some might find the movie's bombast exhausting, the decision to not simply mimic the original's coiled intensity is an admirable one. As much as people like to grumble about remakes, this version of The Guilty is an effective argument for why a movie like this can be clever without feeling the need to completely reimagine or flip the original premise. More than a retread, it's a shrewd interpretation of the material, tailored to the skills of a specific performer. Fuqua and Gyllenhaal, along with a stellar voice cast that includes Keough, Ethan Hawke, and Peter Sarsgaard, simply turn up the volume. Then, they let those eyes go to work. 

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Dan Jackson is a senior staff writer at Thrillist Entertainment. He's on Twitter @danielvjackson.