There are few things Jake Gyllenhaal does better than playing unhinged characters who unravel through a film’s runtime to a breakdown that manifests often in the form of physical destruction. This has been common to many characters, like the ones from Nightcrawler, Prisoners, Enemy, Nocturnal Animals, Demolition, and Wildlife. All of them are different people, but the common factor is a gradual buildup towards a memorable explosive expression of that buildup. He is an incredibly composed actor and that is precisely why this outburst always makes an impression. You can actually see the pressure building on his psyche, in his body language. His performance in The Guilty (Now streaming on Netflix) is no exception either.
There is, however, a salient difference from Nightcrawler or Nocturnal Animals, in that Joe Baylor isn’t self-righteous and is actually very guilt-ridden, pun intended. Right from the first scene, Baylor comes across as a troubled man, who is probably ill and is definitely on edge. He is clearly irritable and short-tempered. His approach to his job is also questionable. He isn’t urgent about the emergency calls he is receiving as a 911 operator. It’s also revealed that he has possibly been benched due to some disciplinary action, as he has a court appearance scheduled for the next day. He is nursing a headache and almost flares up when his colleague tries to alert him to an incoming call. His estrangement from his daughter isn’t clarified fully, but we can estimate it’s probably linked to whatever the hearing’s about.
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And then suddenly we see a different side of him. He’s about to dismiss a very troubling call for help as a drunk dial when he picks up on a sign that tells him there’s more to the situation than apparent. And so begins the slow-boiling thriller that’s equal parts nerve-wracking and heart-wrenching. The most impressionable aspect, however, is Joe’s reaction. He is unexpectedly very deeply concerned. Of course, the situation is itself very unsettling, and it’s natural to get bothered. However, the level of involvement is almost unprofessional when you consider that his job is to deal with such situations, level-headedly. It’s not difficult to see that he is projecting his own insecurities and troubles onto this case.
The development of the story is perfect for a thriller. You’re miles away from all the action, and yet you feel just as involved. This is primarily owing to the pacing, which keeps the tension up throughout. New revelations are spaced out enough for you to digest the latest news, and become more and more unsettled as time passes. And the other factor is Jake’s superior performance. He carries the film on his shoulders. Apart from three short scenes, in the beginning, middle and end, Gyllenhaal is on the screen for the entire time, and his composed acting is simply a treat for the eyes. Whether he is shouting, or crying, or throwing stuff, or being friendly, or just staring intently into space, he will have you captivated from start to finish.
The backstory is revealed much later, but Jake masterfully ensures it reflects in his behavior. He’s completely adopted this persona, and the slow fading away of the façade as the story progresses becomes even more believable because of that. The cinematography is also mention-worthy here because it amplifies the tension we feel. Especially because of the close-up photography that adds considerably, to the discomfort. The camera isn’t completely objective, although it’s not exactly a narrator either, that’s definitely got a major contribution to the viewing experience. There isn’t a lot of rapid movement but multiple frames have a boxed-in template that reflects Joe’s claustrophobic mind space. And most importantly, due to the lack of motion, we’re made to sit with the emotional toll that makes the story extremely personable, almost disturbingly so.
The structuring of the narrative is traditionally that of a thriller and keeps you on the edge of your seat, but the second half is less nerve-wracking and more emotionally taxing. The main plot twist is one you never see coming, and completely changes everything you thought you knew. More importantly, it’s what instigates the crisis of faith. We as people are emotional beings, often very easily inclined to take sides in an apparent conflict based on our personal circumstances and history. More often than not, this is not a proper approach to dealing with an issue, and The Guilty (on Netflix) makes this statement in a superior style. You’ll be shaken to your core after the revelation, and will inadvertently question the basis of bias.
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In conclusion, the film isn’t by nature very different from the millions of thrillers out there, but it’s certainly a memorable viewing experience. Be it the fact that phone calls are the main element of storytelling, or the uninterrupted 80+ minutes of Jake Gyllenhaal, or the insightful undertone questioning our basic tendencies, or the unexpectedly slow and emotionally exhausting final 30 minutes, there are quite a few elements of the film that leave you with an aftertaste you will enjoy. The final third could even have you crying, especially the concluding conversation. What triggers a change of heart is next to impossible to figure out, but the fact is, experiences define us, and it’s heartwarming to know that a tolling but empowering experience can really change someone’s outlook on life.