If you like Jake Gyllenhaal up close and sweaty, do we have a movie for you.
Remaking a 2018 Danish movie, “The Guilty” is a taut, remarkably spare thriller that casts Gyllenhaal as a 911 dispatcher, taking a series of disparate calls – and one particularly significant one involving an imperiled woman – while clearly struggling with a separate personal crisis.
What’s happening? About all we know is that Gyllenhaal’s Joe Baylor is a street cop who has been temporarily assigned to this desk work, and that a pesky reporter keeps calling. Beyond that, nothing is necessarily as it seems, as the story unfolds while a series of wildfires light up the Los Angeles horizon, adding to a sense of tension within the call center and distinguishing the setting.
Shot during the height of the pandemic, the entire movie takes place in that single location. With minimal support from the actors playing his coworkers and the voices on the line (Peter Sarsgaard, Riley Keough and Ethan Hawke among them), Gyllenhaal impressively holds the screen for roughly 90 minutes, often with the camera positioned in claustrophobic close-ups.
From that perspective, the film has a fair amount in common with another Netflix thriller, the recent French sci-fi offering “Oxygen,” which tasked Mélanie Laurent with holding the viewer’s attention while talking to unseen voices. (Thanks to sheer volume, on Netflix even the narrowest concepts fit somewhere within a subgenre.)
The irony is that Netflix intends to give the movie a brief theatrical window before it streams, when this might be about as ideal an at-home, second-screen-viewing vehicle as you’re apt to find.
Although this serves as an obvious showcase for the star (who also produced the film), the intriguing auspices reunite him with “Southpaw” director Antoine Fuqua along with writer Nic Pizzolatto (“True Detective”), who wring as much as they can out of Joe’s ordeal in a way that makes this more than just another logistical exercise in Covid-19 filmmaking.
The movie doesn’t finish as well as it might have, particularly in terms of fleshing out Joe’s story, and it could have been shorter – akin to a “Black Mirror” episode – without losing much.
Still, such quibbles don’t diminish the intensity of the earlier sequences or Gyllenhaal’s performance. Thanks to that, “The Guilty” manages to take Joe – and the audience sharing this confined space with him – on a pretty frenetic ride into the darkness, without ever venturing out into the light of day.
“The Guilty” premieres in select US theaters on Sept. 24 and Oct. 1 on Netflix.