Netflix’s latest crime-thriller, The Guilty, has that name for a reason. Guilt consumes Jake Gyllenhaal’s character, a 911 operator named Joe Baylor—the only character the audience really gets to see—and a worried, abducted woman on the phone, Emily Lighton (Riley Keough).
The movie doesn’t reveal what Joe’s guilty about until the last quarter, but we do see him stressed, irritated, and yelling at nearly every other character. The Guilty had the chance to be a gripping thriller with an intriguing mystery, but it focuses too much on one character, which isn’t a bad thing. However, the filming choice leaves the audience members in the dark about everything going on in the background. After all, the entire film takes place inside a 911 call center (since Joe is working a night shift). Only a couple of other minor characters show their faces for one or two lines, but mostly we just see Joe at the computer taking emergency calls.
One thing’s clear: Joe hates answering 911 calls. At the beginning, he talks to many frantic people over the phone, and his reaction amounts to, “Seriously? They called 911?” He doesn’t say these exact words, to be clear, but he gives off this reaction through exhausted facial expressions. It was interesting seeing Joe’s mental state start off this way, only to get worse as the film progresses.
When Joe gets a frantic call from a woman named Emily, that’s when his attention perks up and viewers can see how much he wants to help her.
Over the phone, Emily pretends she’s talking to her daughter, calling Joe “sweetie” and only saying “yes” or “no.” She puts on the false show because the person who kidnapped her is in the car listening to her every word. Joe eventually picks up on what Emily’s doing, and along with Joe, viewers may start to feel unease kicking in with the unknown, high-crime situation that Emily’s facing.
With such a premise, I had high expectations—not to mention The Guilty skyrocketed to number two on Netflix a day after it was released. I’ve read stories online with such instances occurring, where someone would call 911 and pretend they’re calling someone else for their protection. With The Guilty only telling one side of the story (the 911 operator’s), we hardly know what’s going on with the victim. While having a limited point of view brings a unique angle, the narrow perspective prevents you from feeling immersed in the conflict. The confused, in-the-dark feeling may appeal to some viewers, but to others, the scenes may leave you wanting more.
Not once do we see Emily’s face, but we hear her shaking voice. At this point, Joe’s confused, worried, and concerned. From the way he bosses his colleagues around, it’s clear Joe wants to take matters into his own hands, to run out there and save the day. But he can’t as he’s stuck answering the calls, and is told by another officer that making these executive decisions is “not his job.”
Since the urgency of the situation calls for real action, viewers may find themselves frustrated watching the fed up Joe sitting at his desk, later moving to a desk in an isolated room, waiting for something to happen.
Gyllenhaal gives a talented performance and delivers impressive lines that demonstrate his character’s anger management issues. But The Guilty suffers from inactive characters and an univolving crime. The film ends with an intriguing revelation, but because the audience sees everything from Joe’s limited perspective, we’re just as confused and shocked as him. For this small moment, the restricted point of view worked in the film’s favor as we face the same level of surprise as Joe.
For all its sound acting, The Guilty had the potential to be an incredible film about helping strangers from afar, no matter the limitations.
But the movie misses the mark, as it’s a bit too stale and unexciting at times. Filming a whole movie in one location is ambitious, but in the long run, this method took a riveting plotline and then scraped what would have been the most intense scenes without offering anything new to fill the time.
The Guilty is now available to stream on Netflix. Watch the full trailer here.