“911. What is the address of your emergency?”
Although this phrase is repeated a bit too often in Netflix’s latest film, Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance in “The Guilty” is shocking, spine-tingling and tear-jerking.
The film takes place all in one room: the Los Angeles 911 Dispatch Center. Within this space, the audience is thrown into the world of Joe Baylor (Gyllenhaal), a police officer resigned to a dispatch position after facing disciplinary action.
A call comes in from a distressed woman who reveals she has been kidnapped by her partner, causing Baylor to hyperfixate on this family and the internal problems they face.
Gyllenhaal immediately begins to deliver one of his best performances to date. The audience sees his character’s personal life disintegrating after a separation from his wife and a longing for more time with his daughter. It becomes obvious Baylor sees this case as a way to ostensibly right the wrongs of his past in his relationship and his profession.
At its core, this film is a psychological thriller. Achieving this in a single room may seem like an impossible feat, but with Gyllenhaal’s experience in that world with such films as “Donnie Darko” and “Nightcrawler,” his performance bridges the gap.
From an outside perspective, the movie is a fantastic benchmark for what can be made during the pandemic. The movie was filmed in October 2020 over the span of only 11 days. There being just a singular set lends itself to such a feat, but it’s still rather incredible.
The masterful directorial work by Antoine Fuqua also helps create a tense atmosphere in this confined space with creative and unsettling angles. Despite the fact Gyllenhaal is the primary subject and he’s moving inside just one room, his acting and the technical aspects of this movie create an entire world for the audience.
Accompanying the ever-suspenseful score by Marcelo Zarvos, the entirety of the film is propelled by a series of phone calls to and from Joe Baylor. With static concealing important dialogue, cars speeding down the highway in the background and dogs barking through the phone, the immersive nature of the calls make the walls surrounding Baylor feel nonexistent.
On the other side of the phone, although never seen, the star-studded voices of Peter Saarsgard, Ethan Hawke and Riley Keough are heavily featured. While it’s obvious Gyllenhaal’s raw performance carries the film, the faceless acting of these small few only elevates what Gyllenhaal is able to do on-screen.
Beyond that, the film provides a not-so-subtle commentary on the broken criminal justice system and those with histories of mental health.
The characters involved in the central crime have been directly affected by the law and have had bouts with mental health disorders, their lives only being made more difficult by the system they were funneled through. Baylor himself is struggling with PTSD, and he’s frequently seen having panic attacks.
The film is able to balance these nuanced topics with such a gripping plot in a way that feels natural. Even if someone watching the film has never experienced anything the callers or dispatcher had in this movie, the emotion conveyed is palpable.
From start to finish, it’s impossible for the audience to not feel as though they are sitting right next to Jake Gyllenhaal’s character as attempts to save this family and himself.
Rated R, “The Guilty” is streaming now on Netflix.