REVIEW: The Guilty (2021)

Remaking foreign films is always such a contentious business. In all honesty it goes both ways: adapting a narrative from one language or culture to another can introduce new perspectives and insights, and make a good story available to audiences that do not enjoy watching films with subtitles. On other hand it can weaken a strong narrative via poor creative choices an unclear rationale for adapting the film at all.

The Guilty is a new thriller starring Jake Gyllenhaal and directed by Antoine Fuqua. It adapts the 2018 Danish thriller of the same name that was written and directed by Gustav Möller and starred Jacob Cedergren. The original is a phenomenal film. A police officer under investigation for criminal behaviour has been relegated to an emergency call centre until his trial. He takes a call, initially thinking it is a prank or mis-dial, and grows to realise he has been called by a kidnapping victim in the middle of their abduction. The entire crisis plays out inside the call centre. We do not see any action and can only hear what the officer hears over the telephone.

Fuqua’s remake adapts Möller’s film relatively closely, relocating the action from Denmark to Los Angeles. Jake Gyllenhaal is a tremendous actor and fits the material impeccably. The screenplay has been adapted by Nic Pizzolatto (True Detective), who is a strong talent. On the face of it, The Guilty American-style is on a can’t-lose winning formula.

You know where this is going.

The bottom line is that Fuqua’s film does not trust its material. Möller’s The Guilty is an incredibly tight and oppressive film, ratcheting up tension by keeping its camera close on its protagonist’s face, forcing the audience to hear terrifying events and visualise them in their own head. Its setting is a banal office. It deliberately keeps its visuals simple and orderly, pushing the focus onto Cedergren’s subtle and effective performance and the audio drama that he hears.

Fuqua’s call centre is a high-technology affair, dominated by floor-to-ceiling monitors playing 24-hour news coverage of the city outside. While the crisis plays out over the telephone, California is in the middle of a widespread forest-fire. Gyllenhaal’s Joe Baylor is struggling to breathe due to the smoke and his asthma.

Gyllenhaal’s performance is ratcheted up to an unconvincing extreme. Joe Baylor is abrasive, abusive, violent to desktop objects, and irrationally shrill. The subtleties of Cedergren’s performance have been replaced by a less-rounded and more obvious persona that flattens story possibilities and reduce suspense.

PIzzolatto’s screenplay over-explains and over-emphasises, inserting scenes and sections that simply do not need to be there. Even at 90 minutes the film drags, and its conclusion wraps up a solid five minutes after the credits should have been rolling. It has also been affected bt a very American sense of morality, soft-balling some of the original’s most impactful moments. Worst of all, this sub-standard version of Möller’s is the one that is now most accessible to English-speaking viewers, and effectively will spoil plot developments and surprises that made the original film such a stunning experience. Fuqua’s The Guilty is a watchable enough film, but why watch a mediocre movie when you could watch a genuine five-star masterpiece?

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