Filmed over eleven days in November 2020, The Guilty starts off as one of the best films made under (and about) lockdown, even if it eventually turns into a more generic Netflix release by the time it finishes. The action revolves around Joe Baylor, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, a police officer who has been relieved of his regular duties and assigned to a Los Angeles 911 call centre in the wake of an alleged infringement. We meet Joe on the night before his trial, and follow him as his frustrations bleed into a caller named Emily Lighton (voiced by Riley Keough), who tells him that her husband has kidnapped her and is driving her out of the city. Over twelve hours, Joe has to locate Emily, coordinate local police, and deal with her children, who are home alone, all from behind his desk, since he’s prohibited from returning to the street. The result is a bravura one-man performance from Gyllenhaal – he’s in virtually every shot, and the film rests entirely on his facial expressions and vocal inflections to further the story.
While we never venture into the outside world, we do see it from a distance, in the giant bank of screens that anchor the 911 call centre, which appears to be in downtown Los Angeles. These screens situate the action amidst a collective crisis poised somewhere between the pandemic and the race protests of 2020, but which screenwriter Nic Pizzolatto frames more apolitically as a series of catastrophic wildfires. At one point someone calls from the middle of a riot in the San Fernando Valley, but this is quickly swallowed up into the natural disaster choking the city. This makes regular police work almost impossible, which in turns makes it doubly difficult for Joe to remain behind his desk when he knows the LAPD are understaffed.
From the outset, then, The Guilty is driven by the impotence of witnessing distress from a distance when you’re powerless to help, as all the various callers merge into a collective trauma that is both remote and viscerally present. While the film isn’t explicitly set during lockdown, it brims with the claustrophobia of lockdown, in the form of Joe’s increasingly restless desire to get back on the street, especially when the police officers he calls seem unable to adequately protect Emily. Police dramas in Los Angeles are nearly always peripatetic – even The Call, an earlier call centre thriller, eventually moves out into the city – but The Guilty never expands in scope. Instead, it evokes all the centripetal energy of LA but refuses to provide us with any way of containing or navigating it, producing a visceral longing for the outside world that Joe (and the film) can only process by relegating the city back to a contemptuous, hard-boiled distance. This produces a dark comic undercurrent, in which Joe plays the role of a moralistic vigilante, but from the detachment of a call centre, judging people as much as helping them, and hanging up on them when they won’t accept his advice.
Along with evoking the peculiar claustrophobia of the pandemic, The Guilty presents the last two years as a state of extreme breathlessness, the last symptom of George Floyd and the first indication that Covid was going to be more than a mild flu. Antoine Fuqua stages the 911 calls so that they always begin with an eerie space between breathlessness and static, and uses the first act of the film to take us through a spectrum of different types of breathlessness, each of which corresponds to a different category of emergency. When Emily calls, ushering in the second act, she breathes rapidly for a couple of seconds before addressing Joe, who starts to grip his own puffer more emphatically now too, like a comfort object, a symbol of the pandemic that’s on the near horizon. This breath-empathy keeps their conversation visceral, as Joe starts to lose breath in time with Emily, and then instructs her to breathe in rhythmic tandem with him, before she prepares to escape from her husband and seek safety.
As with the pandemic, the event that causes the shortage of breath – the wildfires – also limits the visual scope of the film. With so much smoke in the air, it’s impossible to resort to police helicopter footage, while the dust severely limits visibility on the ground. Unlike other lockdown films, however, The Guilty makes no attempt to redress or restore this visual field. Rather, Fuqua narrows it further, eschewing any special effects, and even cutting down on digital mapping, which forces us to simply imagine the main narrative spaces in the film. Most of the screenplay consists of people describing their movement through these spaces (a car, a house, a highway), as Joe tries to sympathise with a far more modest trajectory – from the main room in the call centre, to a private office, which he modifies further by putting down the blinds. In the end, this isn’t enough, and so Joe inserts himself into the trajectories he’s hearing in increasingly drastic ways, from encouraging a colleague to kick down the door of an apartment, to instructing Emily to pull the hand brake of her husband’s car. Yet the final trajectory eludes Joe, as Emily escapes the car, climbs to the top of an overpass and threatens to jump into oncoming traffic, losing all reception as Joe is pleading with her to come down.
This gradual erosion of the film’s visual field (and Joe’s efforts to restore it) culminate with the twist of the film – namely, that Emily has just tried to kill her son, and was being driven to a psychiatric hospital by her husband when she called and claimed to be kidnapped. Joe only discovers this right as Emily is about to be delivered to the hospital, at which point she strikes her husband (at Joe’s request) and escapes, while her husband initially refuses Joe’s offer to call an ambulance. In other words, the film’s eroded visual field climaxes with Joe’s failure to coordinate different first responders into a sustained whole. His over-zealous police initiative has actually worked against the ambulance crew, evoking a collective crisis, whether a pandemic or a race protest, that defies even the most cohesive of first responders. Breathlessness now becomes a sign of professional emasculation, as Joe retreats in horror to a gender-neutral bathroom, where he finally deploys his puffer, gulping in great gasps of air.
We do eventually get a panoramic glimpse of the city, but by the time the fire has cleared the film is over too, as the credits roll over the first and last aerial shot of the film. It’s a powerful closing image, but too little happens between Joe’s retreat to the bathroom and this final statement. There’s a real originality in Fuqua’s refusal to expand the visual ambit of the film, but the script doesn’t compensate with an expanded conceptual field. While the twist is good, there need to be a couple more twists, since there’s barely enough here for even a one-hour film. Fuqua does his best to drag it out after we discover Emily’s true identity, but it quickly jettisons the suspense and turns into a more turgid trauma study – or worse, a tokenistic comment about police brutality, which feels somewhat redundant given how evocatively the film has already stylised the collective social traumas of the pandemic and the post-Floyd era.
Concomitantly, Pizzolatto, who is already a fairly writerly auteur, now becomes even more overtly theatrical in the way he sketches Joe, until the film bogs down in itself, and ends up being much simpler than it initially seemed. What starts off as a great lockdown film turns into the worst kind of Netflix film, while what seems like the first in a cascade of twists retrospectively feels like an algorithmic twist, a twist written by a Netflix bot. And yet The Guilty remains a fascinating artefact, not simply because the first half is so compelling, but because it captures the devolution of big screen into small screen experience that became such a hallmark of the pandemic, even if it makes you glad that period is receding from view.