After watching Jake Gyllenhaal in Antoine Fuqua’s The Guilty it is difficult to reason why the actor hasn’t won an Academy Award already. A film is always made up of different settings, various faces, locations, etc but all the recently released Netflix thriller has at its center is Gyllenhaal and he consistently proves that he is more than capable of being a one-man army that delivers on every front, whether it is acting, setting up the background, or conveying the palpable fear in the air.
For some reason, one of Jake Gyllenhaal’s latest performances remained stuck in our head- him as the villainous Magneto in Spider-Man: Far Away From Home. We sometimes still marvel at the swift transition he displayed from playing the good guy who becomes everyone’s favorite to being the villain’s who is perhaps one of the most hated bad guys in the MCU. But there he had a lot of props to work with, plus Tom Holland’s open expressions at being on the receiving end of his betrayal and of course the mind-blowing CGI effects made him look even eviler. But in The Guilty, Gyllenhaal has no such things handy. All he has are voices on the other end of a telephone call and his own acting skills to conjure an atmosphere so ripe with fear and danger that you will find yourself sweating in anticipation of what could happen next. And the actor does all that while being confined to a small radius around his chair in the film.
The Guilty see Jake Gyllenhaal play Joe Baylor, a suspended LAPD officer who is relegated to desk duty of answering calls. While it is not clarified explicitly, the story echoes the Black Lives Matter movement where Officer Derek Chauvin was found guilty of manslaughter for killing George Floyd. In The Guilty, Joe is constantly battling his internal guilt over killing a teenager. His initial plan is to walk away free from the consequences of his crime by giving a false testimony along with his partner Rick. But the events that unfold over the course of one evening have different plans for him.
Jake Gyllenhaal expertly shifts between the different shades of his character. He begins with an obvious disdain for the job as he is used to being on the frontline. He mocks distressed callers and is openly hostile to his co-workers. But all that changes when he gets a call from a woman, Emily, who pretends that she is talking to her daughter to covertly relay that she has been abducted. Joe’s whole aura changes as he desperately tries to save her to assuage his own guilt over taking an innocent life.
It is easy to get in tune with Joe’s simmering emotions in The Guilty– his frustration and helplessness over the meager clues that would lead to her, the gears turning in his head as he connects the dots, the sinking realization of the truth, and him coming to terms with his own guilt. While the character is definitely written well, it is Jake Gyllenhaal who carries his character with aplomb. Though the action is happening off-screen, on the other end of the calls, it is Gyllenhaal who has to do the heavy-lifting and it would be akin to sin to not appreciate the fact that he alone manages to ensure that the plot never gets boring, too hurried, or loses its footing even though it is confined to a single room. Someone give him an Oscar already!