A remake of the Oscar-shortlisted Danish film of the same name, The Guilty attempts to recreate the original’s sense of suspense and dread and partly succeeds.
Remakes, especially those of recently celebrated foreign films, are always tricky. How do you rise up above the original, if any, and bring something that doesn’t feel like a re-telling but rather a re-imagining of the same story with a fresh take that makes the remake worth seeing?
Antoine Fuqua’s The Guilty comes just three years after Gustav Möller impressed audiences and critics with his debut film which went on to be shortlisted for the International Feature Film Oscar for Denmark. While not a shot-for-shot remake, the film still retains the original story while also beefing up the protagonist’s story – to mixed results.
What made the original film stand out is its focus on a singular, suspenseful case, filmed in one location with excellent use of sound editing, mixing and film editing, along with a remarkable lead performance to deliver a true sense of suspense and edge-of-your-seat thrills with nothing audiences saw on screen except an emergency desk agent. The remake seems slightly more interested in creating two parallel storylines: the story of the 911 dispatch center police officer Joe (a superb Jake Gyllenhaal) and that of the case he’s desperately trying to crack.
This comes at both the film’s advantage and disadvantage: on one level, it offers a great showcase for Gyllenhaal’s acting chops, showing him at his most vulnerable as a man struggling to come to terms with his past while also racing against time to save someone’s life. It’s a great turn for Gyllenhaal and he captures Joe’s pain perfectly as he tries to control his own impulses and is, perhaps too much, truly invested in ensuring the safety of Emily, the woman who calls 911 and asks for her help.
On another hand, and in offering a larger part of the runtime to Joe’s own struggles, the film strays from what made the original truly effective: it loses focus on the main storyline and the viewer can’t help but to feel the disconnect.
As believable and perfectly delivered as Gyllenhaal’s performance is, the film is at its most effective when it focuses on Emily’s ordeal, even if we never leave the main location of the dispatch center. In attempting to be both a character study and a suspenseful thriller, the film somehow loses balance in parts but remains overall a quite effective experience. But whereas the original made the protagonist’s story take a back seat for most of the running time to sustain audience engagement, the remake seems to be interested in its lead on the expense of building up the suspense.
Bottom line: Less focused than the original but still a solid and effective thriller, The Guilty is a story of two people in turmoil and the parallels to be drawn between them. Thanks to a strong central performance and well-paced narrative, this is accessible, suspenseful cinema that will surely appeal to mainstream audiences even if it doesn’t raise the bar or bring something new to the table.
This review is from the Toronto International Film Festival. Netflix will release The Guilty in select theaters on September 24 and on then on the streamer October 1.