Whether you favor Gustav Moller’s 2018 Danish drama, “The Guilty,” or the Netflix remake of the same name will depend on whether you prefer your thrillers acoustic or electric, chilly or hot-wired. It will also hinge on your answer to the question, How many close-ups of Jake Gyllenhaal are too many?
Embellishing Moller’s jangly psychological study with Los Angeles color, the director Antoine Fuqua and his screenwriter Nic Pizzolatto have amped the original film’s energy a smidge and marginally widened its perspective. The plot’s relentlessly clambering tension, though largely identical to the original, is catnip to Gyllenhaal, into whose tortured eyes and sweating pores the camera happily descends. As Joe Baylor, a disgraced L.A.P.D. officer temporarily assigned to an emergency call center, the actor builds to an all-caps-plus-exclamation-point performance; that he does so without losing his grip — on us or the character — is some kind of miracle.
When we meet him, Joe is already approaching his last nerve. As flaring wildfires and other emergencies fill the huge screens that overlook the operators on duty, he’s in the bathroom, gasping through an asthma attack. Back at his desk, he rudely swats away the callers he deems less than emergent, curtly processing the rest. It’s the eve of his disciplinary hearing for the unspecified offense that has landed him in this purgatory, and his resentment and boredom are obvious.
Then a woman calls, in what initially appears to be a wrong number as she’s addressing a child, and we can see Joe’s on-the-job instincts click into gear. His face and body suddenly alert, he questions her and deduces that she is being kidnapped and that her abductor is armed. What follows is a taut cat-and-mouse, conducted entirely by telephone, as Joe, instead of following protocol and handing off to other agencies, frantically attempts to solve the crime himself. Only later, as we glean more about his personal life, do we suspect his investment in this woman’s safety might be something more than professional.
Thanks to a vibrant voice cast that includes Riley Keough, Peter Sarsgaard and Ethan Hawke, “The Guilty” helps us to visualize its unexpectedly shocking offscreen twists and turns. Maz Makhani’s cinematography is glossily seductive, finding ever new angles to ogle Joe at his computer, while Marcelo Zarvos’s canny musical score resists thrusting itself into every verbal hiatus. When Joe sucks on his inhaler, we hear every wheeze.
Essentially a one-man show, “The Guilty” necessarily vibrates to the rhythms of its lead. As the original Joe, Jakob Cedergren was cooler and more physically restrained, perfectly in tune with his movie’s stripped-down aesthetic. In Gyllenhaal’s hands — and feet and everything in between — “The Guilty” becomes a more combustible portrait of mental breakdown. Joe, losing his grip on everything that matters, needs to find this woman before it’s too late. He desperately needs a save.
Rated R for bad words and horrible pictures in your head. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes. Watch on Netflix.