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Sleuth Operator

Glen Wilson/Netflix

The Guilty (2021)

Some years ago, Halle Berry starred in a movie about a Los Angeles emergency dispatcher plagued with guilt and chained to her phones called “The Call.” A few years ago, Tom Hardy starred in a movie about a man overwhelmed with responsibility and chained to the phone in his car having the worst night of his life called “Locke.” Neither of these were the impetus for “The Guilty” – that was a Danish film of the same name that came out in 2018. But if you mashed up “Locke” and “The Call,” you have the idea; an emergency dispatcher suddenly has the worst night of his life. It all takes place at a few desks in the 911 dispatch center in Los Angeles, in the middle of last summer’s wildfires, and Jake Gyllenhaal is the man chained to his phones, desperately hoping it’s not too late.

Mr. Gyllenhaal began his career playing whiny, troubled kids, and from the crossover point of “Jarhead” has matured into copaganda/war-machine-type roles, which he mercifully manages with a great deal of depth. His is a career arc of exploring the nuances of what machismo and hypermasculinity do to men, whether they are the victims of violence or the perpetrators of it. Now he is Joe, a cop on dispatch duty while he awaits a disciplinary hearing, bursting with impatience at this final shift and not hiding his contempt for the work. He goes so far as to swear at a couple of callers. But then he hears from a crying woman named Emily (Riley Keough, once again magnificently using her persona as a weapon), who’s pretending to talk to her little daughter. It becomes apparent pretty quickly she’s been kidnapped. Joe puts out a call to a highway patrol dispatcher (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), but due to the wildfires and the lack of a precise location they can’t find the van Emily’s in right away. Joe ignores the instructions of the floor manager (Christina Vidal) and starts acting like a cop instead of a call handler. As he works the phones in a frantic attempt to work out who Emily’s with and where they might be, it becomes clear very quickly just how high the stakes really are.

Joe also has snuck his personal mobile into his pocket, and ends up fielding a few calls from a journalist (Edi Patterson) as well as trying desperately to get ahold of his wife (Gillian Zinser). As the pressure ramps up, there’s an awful piece of news, and as Joe’s decisions begin to have hard ramifications all around – most directly for his loyal and sympathetic partner Rick (Eli Goree), and Peter Sarsgaard in a tricky part which should not be spoiled – Joe twists so tight he’ll either collapse or explode. The specificity of the plot cannot be discussed without spoilers either, but the major concerns of our current moment – climate change’s sneak impact on our daily lives, the horrendous state of the American healthcare system, assumptions about gender roles, and how/if the police police themselves – are all intertwined in Nic Pizzolatto’s script without being preachy or mawkish.

Director Antoine Fuqua, in his precise wheelhouse of tightly controlled, threatening masculinity beset on all sides, makes the absolute most of this airless setting. In Peter Wenham’s production design walls of CCTV monitors bathe the room in fire. Maz Makhani’s camera is almost always still, but Jason Ballantine’s rapid editing around Joe and how he moves around the office emphasizes the mood without being intrusive. But it’s David Esparza’s sound design which is absolutely sensational. The slightly different effects of the different phone lines, or when Emily is under blankets in the back of a van, or when some patrol cops are shouting into their shoulder packs from a street on fire – we hear it all, every crackle and pause, every passing siren or weary sigh. This could have been a radio play, but then we would have lost Mr. Gyllenhaal’s explosive, anxious physicality as he frets about whether or not he can outthink everyone else on the phones. “The Guilty” never quite surpasses its setup, but as a slice of the current moment it cuts very deep.


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