Tuesday 12 October 2021

Callbacks: "The Guilty"

The Guilty was a notably well-marshalled Danish suspenser that suggested the movies had started to take notes from TV's better bottle episodes: it boiled down to a man alone in a room, desperately trying to put the world to rights over the telephone, even as his certainties came crashing down around him. That film remains a great night's entertainment, but now we have a second, English-language The Guilty, adapted by True Detective creator Nic Pizzolatto, directed by the never knowingly understated Antoine Fuqua, and starring a jacked-up Jake Gyllenhaal as the burnt-out 911 operator who fields a fateful call from a damsel in distress. Amazingly, given Netflix's involvement, the running time is roughly comparable - 91 minutes, set against the original's lean 85, one early sign that the source couldn't really be improved upon, and that everybody's working with much the same material. Yet elements here have clearly been buffed and upscaled. The new film opens with a panorama of L.A. at the height of wildfire season - helicopters cutting through smoke and infernal-red skies - which recalls nothing less than the Vietnam of Apocalypse Now. Gyllenhaal's Joe Baylor operates out of the kind of coolly low-lit yet extravagantly open-plan office space that has become familiar to viewers of American TV forensics dramas. And towards the end of these 91 minutes, just before the last caller hangs up, an extended coda carefully tidies away those ambiguities the original was perfectly content to leave hanging, the better to keep its viewers up past their bedtime.

If the Fuqua variation serves any real purpose beyond IP appropriation, it's that it once more highlights a difference between European and American storytelling norms. The Danish movie was all in your head and all the stronger for it, being the best radio play this century to have taken a left turn and ended up on cinema screens. The remake is mostly in your head, because its maker can't quite help himself: rendered a shade redundant by the project's medium-high concept, Fuqua sporadically takes to doodling little vignettes, not quite scenes, in the corners of the frame to hint at what might be unfolding out there on the road Joe's caller (voiced now by Riley Keough) is tearfully travelling. Furthermore, he sets his hero down in front of a towering bank of monitors showing the world (or at least this sprawling Californian part of it) burning up, as close as the filmmaker gets to his trademark pyrotechnics. Throughout the first act, there's rather too much visual noise: your eyes are too busy for your ears to take in critical details. (The original avoided that problem by being Scandinavian-sober from first frame to last.) It improves once it yanks the protagonist into a darkened sideroom, tightening the focus and removing Joe from the nightshift herd to prey more forcefully on his vulnerabilities. Gyllenhaal begins to lose it in sweaty close-up, and the narrative starts to exert a measure of the original's pull, even if those of us who've already seen this tale told will know exactly where we're all headed.

Second time around, the big narrative twist struck me as even more cynical-bordering-on-reactionary: the kind of fiendishly prickly provocation Danish filmmakers have felt liberated to trade in post-Lars von Trier, snickering wickedly as it overturns those assumptions we've been advised to make upon hearing stories such as that Joe hears coming down the line. Still, it's engineered and executed with flashes of Fuqua's usual expressive flair: in the pause that follows in this revelation's immediate wake, the gaping space in the frame around Gyllenhaal appears to reformulate itself into one giant, slack-jawed holler of "FUUUCCCCKKKKK!". That's sorta fun, but too much else here feels like an exercise. A wise musician once said the only point in covering a song is to do something radically different with it, make it new all over again. Judged on those terms, this version of The Guilty is a failure, no more than world cinema karaoke. One sad thing about modern Hollywood is that it's had far worse ideas than world cinema karaoke over the past thirty years - and many worse stabs at world cinema karaoke. (The heart sinks upon being reminded of George Sluizer's 1993 redo of his own 1988 film The Vanishing starring Jeff Bridges and a pre-fame Sandra Bullock, so disastrous that it not only sank without trace but buried the excellent original beneath a slew of complex rights issues.) Yet there surely have to be better ideas hidden towards the bottom of William Morris's daily maildrop. Don't there?

The Guilty is now playing at the Everyman Broadgate and the Rio Dalston, and is available to stream via Netflix; the 2018 original screens on Channel 4 this Monday at 1.55am.

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