starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Ethan Hawke, Riley Keough, Peter Sarsgaard
screenplay by Nic Pizzolatto, based on the original screenplay by Gustav Möller & Emil Nygaard Albertsen
directed by Antoine Fuqua
by Walter Chaw Landing midway between Pontypool and Talk Radio, Antoine Fuqua's The Guilty finds disgraced cop Joe (Jake Gyllenhaal) bumped down to 9-1-1 operator as he awaits trial for something the press is eager to hear his side of the story of. He's falling apart, though; this much we can tell by the way his superiors in the call station keep him on a short--very short--leash, and by the way he looks at himself in the bathroom mirror like an animal injured and cornered. He calls his estranged wife and begs her to let him say goodnight to his daughter. She begs him to leave her alone. He can't seem to catch a break. But he gets a call from Emily (voiced by Riley Keough), who's been abducted by her ex-husband, Henry (Peter Sarsgaard). They're travelling east on the 10--Joe figures that out because she sees a forest fire raging out the driver's-side windows. Joe figures out a lot of things while, on a bank of screens in front of him, an apocalypse plays out. It's a vision of hell. Our hell--we made it. It's ours. Emily gives Joe one last chance to do a good thing before he vanishes, so he's going to do it, whether or not it's too late. It's been too late for a long time.
Harlan Ellison used to do this writing stunt where he'd sit in the window of places like the Dangerous Visions bookstore in Sherman Oaks, CA or A Change of Hobbit in Westwood. He'd take suggestions in the morning like an improv troupe--protagonist, setting, etc.--and then he'd write. It was the kind of thing that gratified his gargantuan, towering ego while also tickling a mind given to mercurial fits of inspiration, and just as often spasms of rage and nihilism. He said once that he did it so people could see that writers were like plumbers or electricians: it was a job. I don't think he truly believed that. I love Harlan Ellison, though maybe not as much as the teen version of me loved him. I love him now because I remember how much I loved him then. In December of 1977, he wrote a short story called "Flop Sweat" in the six-and-a-half-hour leadup to an appearance on KABC Talk Radio. "Flop Sweat" concerns an opportunistic talk-show host who invites dangerous wackos onto her show under the guise of objectivity and providing an equal platform for "both sides" of issues that really only have one side. One night, a serial killer fond of razorblades calls in, disconnects, and then calls in again from an impossible distance. And again. And so the world ends, and the talk-show host who bartered the truth for listeners is hailed as the lone horseperson, the conch, the mouthpiece for the apocalypse.
Anyway, The Guilty feels like "Flop Sweat." It's arrogant and claustrophobic but not without its prophecy and wisdom. It feels hopeless and it trafficks in the très Ellisonian device of leading inexorably up to the death of the protagonist without actually allowing the protagonist to die. One of the problems with writing something quickly can also be one of the strengths of doing it: you tend to talk about whatever's on your mind. The Guilty wrestles with police corruption, a broken and overloaded system, climate disaster, domestic fracture, infrastructure implosion, the unicorn of accountability, and how heroes don't really exist anymore but if they do, they're spending all their time saving murderers and lunatics. The key scene in the movie has Joe sitting on the floor of a bathroom next to a toilet full of vomit and, yes, that encapsulates things pretty well. There's little subtlety here in this star vehicle, a remake of a 2018 Danish film that feels even more like Pontypool and Talk Radio (and "Flop Sweat") for its lower-budget, more modest sets and focus on the intimate rather than on the global. The original is a quiet conversation between broken people; the remake is played big, like a Tennessee Williams play about hothouse flowers and their delusions about snakes.
I like both of them. I like the original for its intimacy and I like the remake for its "the planet is on fucking fire and we are sinners in the hands of an angry God" pulpit-pounding. The Danish film ends on an ambiguous note, letting us decide whether or not this tainted hero has decided to absolve himself of sin after this long teatime of the soul. The remake, of course, not only doesn't do that, it offers a "BREAKING NEWS" voiceover to tell us exactly what Joe has decided and why. If the original is about how complicated people are and how even bad people are capable of good, this version of The Guilty is about how all it takes for a bad apple to become a good apple is saving the life of a suicidal child murderer in the throes of a psychotic break. Oh, and the kid's okay. Gyllenhaal is terrific in this umpteenth turn as a very tense person and Fuqua matches that intensity with feverish stylistic flourishes, including smash cuts and extreme close-ups of flashing red lights. The movie looks great and acts great and doesn't for a second trust its audience to appreciate nuance or accept uncertainty, and so right at the point it should be letting its last minor note linger on the string, it takes out a sledgehammer and just fucking goes to town. Guilty? Guess you could say that, yes. PROGRAMME: SPECIAL PRESENTATIONS