At the Movies with Alan Gekko: The Guilty “2021”

MPAA Rating: R/Genre: Crime Thriller/ Stars: Jake Gyllenhaal, Christina Vidal, Adrian Martinez; Voices of: Ethan Hawke, Riley Keough, Eli Goree, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Paul Dano, Peter Sarsgaard, Christiana Montoya, David Castañeda, Beau Knapp, Edi Patterson, Gillian Zinser, Bill Burr, Dillon Lane, Marlene Forte/ Runtime: 90 minutes

I think it can easily be said at this point that, due to being in films now for the better part of over 30 years at the time of this writing, Jake Gyllenhaal has managed to time and time again show audiences and critics that he can do just about any role that he sets his mind to playing. Indeed it doesn’t matter what genre a movie belongs to or even the tone that it chooses to operate with, the performances Gyllenhaal provides are always real and quite astonishing even when he attaches his name to a project that might not always be as strong as his level of talent. Suffice it to say that Gyllenhaal is not just merely one of the more dependable performers that is at work today in the realm of movie magic, but also is the type of actor who might be able to give you a powerhouse performance if you made a by and large single setting film that also had only a single main character for the audience to follow. Incidentally that is also a theory that I can now have the pleasure of seeing validated in a movie. I say that because with film helmer Antoine Fuqua’s newest slice of cinematic pie The Guilty, you the viewer will get to witness as Gyllenhaal manages to triumphantly give audiences a performance that is so riveting it actually manages to completely overwhelm the fact that the movie’s plot is fairly predictable. No it’s not entirely a solo act as our hero does interact with other people and the movie unfurls its distinct narrative through a series of calls on the phone, but this slice of cinematic pie is still in so many aspects an hour and a half long extended episode of The Jake Gyllenhaal Power Hour and he is just astonishing. Indeed it’s a real balancing act of a performance for quite a few reasons that I shan’t spoil here, but Gyllenhaal proves to be such a skilled performer that, rather than just simply walk the line, he is literally doing gymnastics on it, and it’s so riveting to watch him work that you will utterly forget that what you see unfold before your very eyes, by and large, doesn’t exist a space that measures no more than 200 ft.

The plot is as follows: An adaptation of a 2018 Danish slice of cinematic pie of the same name (that I also incidentally feel you should know at this time in the review I haven’t yet had the pleasure of sitting down to watch) and penned by a scribe by the name of Nic Pizzolatto, The Guilty “2021” tells us the story of a man by the name of Joe Baylor. Mr. Baylor, we rather quickly are able to pick up on, is a member of law enforcement in the city of Los Angeles who is, when our story opens, currently waiting to go on trial and who until then has been on a temporary basis been reassigned to a 911 dispatch position within the LAPD. Thus we see that the night before he is due to make his court appearance, our “hero” is stuck working a fairly exhausting shift as a lot of incidents attributed to a group of vicious wildfires in the surrounding area are keeping the phones literally ringing off the hook and everyone in the officer on their toes trying to do everything they can to help. Yet even in the midst of all this chaos and confusion, we see that one call soon comes in that manages to completely and utterly divert Baylor’s attention from everything else he is supposed to be working on. This is because on the other end of the phone is a young woman by the name of Emily Lighton has called 911, but is acting like she is on the phone with her daughter. In reality however, Emily is being kidnapped and taken to a van by her ex-criminal significant other, a guy named Henry, and they are going to a location that is not known. Thus, although Joe has trouble in keeping her on the phone and although he cannot for whatever reason abandon his post, we still see that he manages to devote himself 110% to helping this woman with her ordeal for reasons that include the fact that he also has a daughter even if here lately they’ve become slightly estranged due to all of the issues he has been dealing with as of late. Thus in an attempt to try and rescue this woman’s life, we see our hero begin to try and get through to various law enforcement entities that might be able to intervene. This starts first with reaching out to the California Highway Patrol in regards to the vehicle Henry’s driving and then trying to get other law enforcement officers to head to not only Emily’s place to make sure her kids are ok, but also Henry’s to see if he left any clues there about where in the world he might be taking Emily. However, when our hero isn’t able to get what he perceives as satisfactory results right away, we see him start to get more and more irritable about how limited he can act from the confines of his desk and start to slowly but surely go beyond the limits of his post in order to possible try and save this young woman’s life himself no matter what the cost…

Now perhaps the most incredible thing about the work done in this movie by Jake Gyllenhaal is the fact that the character of Joe Baylor has got to be easily one of the least likable individuals that Gyllenhaal has ever played on screen (and when your filmography includes the characters Donnie Darko and Lou Bloom from Nightcrawler that is definitely saying something). This air of dislike starts with the fact that we as movie goers do come to learn quite early into the film that the man has been indicted for a quite potent act of criminality which right off doesn’t exactly seem all that appealing, but that’s before you even get into the personality quirks that this guy is saddled with. That’s because even if you can give the guy a pass due to the overwhelming stressfulness of the situation and you can empathize with his franticness in this set of circumstances, there is no denying that Joe still does come across as a grumpy and bratty child at times who is quite likely to throw a temper tantrum the moment he isn’t able to get what he feels he deserves. Yet even with that in your face there is still such an overwhelming amount of complex pathos on display in Gyllenhaal’s performance that he is able to keep you invested right from the word go. An investment incidentally which is downright essential seeing as this slice of cinematic pie does him at the front of darn near every scene in the film, but Gyllenhaal is able to take this load and lift it on his shoulders like it’s nothing he hasn’t done before. Thus, sure our “hero’s” level of stubborn irascibility and juvenile temper might be fairly jarring, and how he deals with things might not be the best in the world, but his franticness is quite infectious and his level of commitment to making sure this woman is saved does not only stay with you, but it also definitely leaves you intrigued as to just how this whole situation is going to pan out.

Of course the big thing that really holds this slice of cinematic pie back from being truly great is that in all honesty it’s not exactly that difficult to get some idea, however vague, for how the plot is going to pan out. Yes the level of commitment from a creative perspective in only showing us what is going on from Baylor’s point of view is very well done, but by the same token it also has quite the influence on your perception of the narrative. This is because not only does the character and his behavior constantly make you question the choices he makes in this movie, but there is also a little voice in your head which will continue to tell you that we are never going to get the complete and full picture in terms of what is going on from the point of the view of the person on the opposite end of the phone. As a result, the gut feeling that we should be suspicious of just what exactly we aren’t being shown by this slice of cinematic pie proves to be quite difficult to just push to the side and as a result it gives you a distinct set of expectations in regards to the path this movie is looking to head down. Thus when certain twists in the road arise, they sadly aren’t as hard hitting as they could be. Thus although it’s a flaw in this narrative structure, there is still enough in terms of substance that we as movie goers are still treated to a fairly riveting cinematic viewing experience. It’s also worth noting that as a narrative that happens over one day and also deals with the LAPD, you could also see this slice of cinematic pie as a quasi-sorta spiritual sequel to Antoine Fuqua’s 2001 masterpiece Training Day (heck for all we know Ethan Hawke could be voicing his character Jake Hoyt from that film in this one albeit just under a different name). Yet this isn’t exactly an insult to the film in any way; rather it’s a compliment seeing as this is easily one of the most riveting slices of cinematic pie that he has made since that movie came out. I mean not only does Fuqua get yet another top-flight performance out of Gyllenhaal (an accomplishment his 2015 boxing movie Southpaw was also able to pull off quite beautifully), but he is also able to do a terrific job at sustaining both tension and tempo courtesy of riveting close-up shots as well as intelligent utilization of the camera. Sure it’s a quite distinct movie for Fuqua due to his concentration on slices of cinematic pie that are a lot more action packed as of late, but when looking at this slice of cinematic pie through that prism it’s highly successful.

All in all I think it can easily be stated that the distinct type of narrative that this film is trying to establish and from there subsequently run all the way with is one that can be quite hard to accomplish in a way that both critics as well as the ordinary, everyday movie lover can embrace/appreciate. With that being said, for how many times this distinct narrative has fallen flat on its face, it makes all the more enjoyable when it is actually able to triumph in a cinematic format and this slice of cinematic pie is a wonderful case in point in that respect. Indeed equipped with work from talented if not highly underrated actor Jake Gyllenhaal that is in equal measure absolutely riveting and truly three-dimensional in the best way possible, the 2021 take on The Guilty is an electric thriller that manages to hook you in right from the word go whilst also maintaining the thrills all the way through to its resolution that is both gripping and also satisfying in the best way possible. On a scale of 1-5 I give The Guilty “2021” a solid 3.5 out of 5.