TORONTO — As Netflix’s assembly line of new movies rolls faster and faster in its effort to win the streaming turf wars, the films are looking cheaper and cheaper.
But never more so than “The Guilty,” which premiered Friday at the Toronto International Film Festival. Starring Jake Gyllenhaal and directed by Antoine Fuqua of “Training Day,” it’s basically a loud old radio play.
There is but a single change of scenery over 90 sledgehammering minutes: the actor moves from his desk in one room to — wait for it — a desk in another room. And, as Gyllenhaal plays a 911 emergency dispatcher named Joe, most of the movie is spent on the phone. He talks to coworkers a few times, usually to scream at them before returning to the phone.
Joe is a Los Angeles cop who’s temporarily working at the call center while he’s on trial for something he did on the job. It does not take brilliant analytical skills to figure out what that act could be.
In an overly theatrical bit of plotting, this is Joe’s last shift at the office. His final day in court is in the morning, and he expects a favorable verdict and to return to his former beat. Well, the film’s title isn’t “The Not Guilty,” but we’ll go along with it.
Tonight, though, he’s being bombarded by calls because wildfires have spread to LA and the city is covered in smoke and ash. Joe barks impatiently at most of the callers, until he gets one from a quivering woman in a car he surmises has been abducted.
While he emotionally attempts to locate her, he rings her house and discovers her young daughter and son have been abandoned. Throughout this ordeal, Joe keeps looking at a picture of his own little girl on his iPhone lock screen. Rather on-the-nose.
Then Joe goes rogue. He sneaks into another room after his shift is over and asks his former partner to break into the abductor’s apartment without a warrant; he enthusiastically recommends assault to somebody; he puts countless lives at risk as he screams illegal directives into the receiver.
The movie’s late-in-the-game twist isn’t bad. A character’s revelation makes a point that crimes are often not as simple as they seem, which is true enough.
Gyllenhaal and director Antoine Fuqua have also worked very hard to differentiate each moment, since changing scenery and introducing new characters in-person aren’t an option in Nic Pizzolatto’s static script, which is based on a 2018 Danish film. And the pair does a fine job of moving things along. “The Guilty” is never boring, but halfway through you’ve just had enough of it.
The larger issue at hand is that you don’t believe much of what’s going on. Ever. Let’s start with the set-up: Of all the places to put a cop awaiting trial, the 911 call center? Really? Seems like a liability to me! And the emergency calls, more often than not, don’t ring true. They sound staged, stilted, too convenient.
And a full scene with another actor or two with well-developed characters would be nice.
Of pinching pennies, I the juror find Netflix… guilty!