TIFF 2021 review: The Guilty (Antoine Fuqua)

“At the end of The Guilty, what is left is the feeling of wasted time and that there is still a long way for Hollywood to overcome not only “the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles”, but how it deals with films that are foreign to it.”

Back in 2018, Gustav Möller’s Den Skyldige (The Guilty) became a critical success across the globe and ended up receiving over forty nominations in different film festivals and awards ceremonies; so it was no surprise that the news of an American remake helmed by Antoine Fuqua broke out. Not only that, but when taking under consideration streaming services and the synchronicity offered by social media in receiving and talking about film releases, not even how fast such remakes are being made is a surprise anymore. This way, the conversation changes and becomes focused on whether there is something ontologically problematic with a remake; is it really wrong? The argument becomes are they necessarily inferior to the original?

I don’t think that there is something wrong with it; however, that doesn’t mean that this is a simple matter. Or that everything could be summed up by Bong Joon-ho’s comment about overcoming “the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles”. In a sense film adaptations are also a process of remaking – even if it is via a different media – an existent work, and yet we don’t talk about them the same way we address a Hollywood remake. This is, as mentioned, a layered topic, and everything might begin with society’s obsession with an almost mythical originality, a work of art that would be some sort of genesis for what is yet to come, and therefore would be better. In this line of thought, a book comes first, literature comes first, hence its authority; that would be the reason why a literary work would be necessarily more profound than its film adaptation. But this is a false premise, and what is left outside such statements is that when it comes to an adaptation, one is always dealing with nothing but different interpretations. No one reads the same book or watches the same film.

When addressing this problem, Agnieszka Holland’s The Secret Garden comes to mind; a film that every time it is on TV, like a Proustian madeleine, makes me think of my own childhood. But now when I think about it, I also think about when I found out that it was based on the 1911 Frances Hodgson Burnett novel. Or even, when reading about the 2020 remake directed by Marc Munden, I discovered that there was also a 1949 version helmed by Fred M. Wilcox; later, another one, this time in 1987 and directed by Alan Grint. The list is long and made up of films, plays, animations, and so forth. So what is the original? For me Holland’s work introduced me to this story, her film led me to the novel, not the other way around. And now even when watching a film that came years before, I can’t help but make a comparison with her version. Agnieszka Holland’s The Secret Garden is my original one.

So back to Fuqua’s The Guilty; why does this particular version more than simply not work? Why does it feel wrong? In Fuqua’s version we follow a police officer, Joe Baylor, who as punishment was taken off the streets and forced to answer emergency calls. Apart from the character’s name, the story is the same as Möller’s film. What keeps it from working is how the screenplay fails to understand that the setting is not the same. In one scene, Joe (Jake Gyllenhaal) tries to calm down a little kid over the phone. Her mother is the one calling Joe for help, claiming to have been abducted. The child is alone with her baby brother and she is scared. Joe decides to send a patrol over to take care of the children and while doing so proudly states, “we are the police, we protect the people”. A few moments later, after learning more about the kidnapped woman’s situation, Joe decides to send someone to her ex-partner’s home. There must be some clue there. But when confronted by the fact that he can’t simply break into someone’s home without a warrant, Joe calls one of his police officer friends and asks him to break in. He is stressed, there’s a woman and her children in need of help, and the system is failing them; like any film hero, he must act to save them. And so he does.

Anyone who has seen Möller’s film will recognize the aforementioned sequence, and neither Fuqua’s film nor Nic Pizzolatto’s screenplay ever goes astray from the source material. What changed, however, is that statements like “we protect the people” might mean something else in the United States. That is not to say that there is no police brutality or excesses committed in the name of so-called law and order in Denmark, but simply that the war dog or the lonely soldier who is willing to break every law in the book to get things done is an American cultural trope. And it is also about being able to recognize that in this context “blue lives matter” appeared as an answer to the Black Lives Matter movement. So if you are adapting, why not take these things under consideration? Or why frame this particular narrative about guilt as some act of heroism and self-redemption? Why not really take the film’s new context under consideration? The only adaptation to this new setting in Pizzolatto’s screenplay is mentioning through exposition how everyone in the LAPD and fire department are overworked and stressed out because of the California fires. Even these fires don’t actually have anything to do with the main storyline and do not pose a real problem for Joe communicating with the ones he is trying to help. Curiously enough, even a couple of calls that Joe picks up when the film begins are the same as in the source material.

This sameness is the real problem here, not the fact that this is not an original screenplay. Guilt is a universal feeling, to feel your hands are tied when trying to help someone is as well. Jake Gyllenhaal delivers a good performance that might even be remembered in some awards ceremonies later this year; the real issue is that there is nothing in The Guilty that doesn’t sound like a response to some rejection of subtitles and the barrier they may represent in America. Nothing that makes the film stand on its own, as Holland’s The Secret Garden did. The film depends on the gimmick of one set, one actor, and some phone calls that keep getting interrupted; what makes it work is that when watching Möller’s Den Skyldige, we were as stuck as its main character. We didn’t know what was going to happen next. Every twist and revelation paid off. We could barely see the main character’s surroundings, only his face most of the time. Here, everything is the same when it comes to the plot. We know what will happen next. Every twist, every revelation. There is nothing new, there’s no payoff. And to make things worse, Joe is working in a huge CGI office full of space and people. At the end of The Guilty, what is left is the feeling of wasted time and that there is still a long way for Hollywood to overcome not only “the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles”, but how it deals with films that are foreign to it.