If you’re of a certain age, as I am, you might remember drive-in movies, a place where you could enjoy a double feature from the comfort of your car’s front seat. Accompanying the main feature, starring movie stars you’d actually heard of, there was a second feature of a usually dubious, B-movie quality. It typically starred someone whose name you may or may not recognize (Victor Mature, for example), ran 90 minutes or less, and had a simple storyline that could be easily described in one sentence.
Well, here goes: “The Guilty” stars Jake Gyllenhaal as a 911 operator who must rescue an abducted woman using only his telephone. It runs 15 seconds under 90 minutes.
“The Guilty” is a B-movie brought into the new millennium. Not that B-movies (don’t ever call them films) such as this are all bad or necessarily lack the dramatic excitement of the big boys. In fact, a good B-movie can be a thrill as it lurches back-and-forth between scenes with a breathlessness that seems to indicate that the movie itself knows it only has 90 minutes to live.
“The Guilty” has a clever little set-up. Gyllenhaal is a short-tempered cop who’s manning 911 phones due to a disciplinary action that remains unspecified until late in the movie. He picks up a call from a desperate woman who is clearly being held against her will and tries to save her using the only tool he has: the phone. Just about all of the movie’s action takes place in the 911 call center, although various actors of note (Ethan Hawke, Riley Keough, Peter Sarsgaard, Paul Dano) appear off-screen in a variety of voice-only roles.
Of course, the woman-in-distress scenario is not the whole story, and the film does a very nice job of peeling back the layers of what becomes a tight little mystery surrounding what actually motivated the woman’s abduction in the first place. Suffice it to say that gender prejudices and expectations are upended.
Gyllenhaal is extremely effective in his role of a cop rotting from the inside, and he really holds our attention, perhaps aided by the fact that he’s shot in close-up 75% of the time. He’s combative, judgmental, and quick to transfer his internal anger onto everyone around him. Gyllenhaal is particularly gifted at communicating psychotically complex characters (see “Nightcrawler”) at their breaking point without resorting to hysterics.
Working on an 11-day schedule that forced him to shoot from a van due to COVID-19, director Antoine Fuqua uses his set beautifully, and the film never feels more claustrophobic than the story requires. True, opening up the story to alternate locations would let it breathe a bit, but that’s not the goal; rather, the film wants you to feel pressurized by the limited location.
If drive-ins were still a fixture in every town, this movie would look great on a double-bill with “Training Day” or “The Equalizer,” both also directed by Fuqua. You’d get a big movie with a big star like Denzel Washington followed by a tight little thriller like “The Guilty” starring that one guy you liked in that other movie one time. Wasn’t he in one of the Spidermans?
Sounds like a fun night out. Why not stream both and pull your car right up in front of your flat-screen?
Directed by Antoine Fuqua
Rated R (language throughout)
Begins streaming today on Netflix
Jed Blaugrund is an English teacher at West Ranch High School, and a resident of Stevenson Ranch. Before becoming a teacher, he graduated from the USC School of Cinema/Television and worked for more than 20 years in the film business.