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The Guilty, The Guilty Pleasure Of A Covid Thriller



The Guilty 2021

The Guilty (Netflix)

Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal

Directed by Antoine Fuqua

Rating: ***

Since this kinetic thriller simulates scintillating drama out of voice performances, allow me to imagine a conversation between the very talented Jake Gyllenhaal and his producer.

“Look, I am bored of this lockdown. Let’s remake that Danish thriller. The Guilty which takes place in one setting. Most of the characters barring mine are heard not seen. So this could be an ideal lockdown fare. What say? Besides I need a potential Oscar nomination for this year,” Jake argued with his producer who masks his  eagerness.

That’s probably how this gripping thriller with balls busting out of its seams, must have been born. I must say the Danish original was better—isn’t it always the case? Gyllenhaal, an actor who never fails to surprise, pulls put all stops to play the on-the-edge LAPD cop Joe Baylor who finds himself demoted to attending to 911 emergencies after a grievous shootout.

The actual drama kicks in when a distressed woman named Emily (a vivid visceral voice performance by Riley Keough) calls Joe. She, its seems, has been kidnapped by her ostensibly sadistic husband. There are two little children left alone in the house.

Over the next hour, Joe becomes obsessed with rescuing the woman and her children. Phone calls are made incessantly, the cop-hero’s friends are called to help…It all seems like a big set-up for a seclusion thriller.

As a Covid drama The Guilty works swimmingly creating pockets of unbearable suspense from the caller Emily’s distress. Gyllenhaal controls the entire drama through his pain-lacerated performance. Like Jayasurya’s  remarkable Malayalam saga of contagion and isolation in Sunny the main lead carries the plot’s burden on his  shoulder.

And Gyllenhaal is deeply moving, specially towards end when drama in Joe’s life and in the life of the distressed  voice on the phone, is unraveled. This is not the first time Jake and his director Anthony Fuqua have worked together. In the 2015 thriller Southpaw, Gyllenhaal played a  man struggling to come to terms  with his wife’s loss. In The Guilty too Gyllenhaal’s wife has left him, and not without reason.

It is hard to like Joe Baylor even when the plot aids his gradual journey towards self-knowledge. I never came  around to empathizing with Joe the way I did with Jayasurya’s Sunny. For me Sunny is a superior lockdown  drama. It opens up the protagonist’s wounds without hesitation or apology. It allows him to have his say in world that is no longer interested in him.

Gyllenhaal’s Joe, on the other hand, is a bit of a jerk, bullying those who still care for him to make them do things he wants done. In the end he is somewhat redeemed. But I left this watchable thriller with a sense of dissatisfaction. It should have opened the doors to Joe’s tortured head a bit more directly.

There are places in the cat-and-game drama where the voices on the phone seem more real than Joe. This could be a sign of Joe’s growing dissociation with reality. On the other hand it could just be the failure of the lead actor to find a core of humanity in his troubled character.

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