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‘The Guilty’ Spits in the Face of the ‘One Good Cop’ Trope

In this Netflix thriller, Jake Gyllenhaal plays a disgraced policeman hoping to redeem himself by saving an abducted woman. It’s a cautionary tale for our ‘Defund the Police’ age

In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, there was a national awakening about the importance of defunding the police, and while that larger debate continues, its repercussions have been felt in smaller ways — in particular, how we think about Hollywood’s portrayal of lawmen. There’s no shortage of TV crime procedurals, but in the last year it’s been harder to watch old episodes of shows like Law & Order without thinking of their often uncomplicated depictions of hero cops. In fairness, some small changes within the industry have started to take place. For instance, the sitcom Brooklyn Nine-Nine went so far as to rework its final season to reflect the realities that were always there: Some cops are racist, some cops are bad and the entire American police system has roots in the country’s bygone slave patrols.

But not all cops are bad, right? There must be some good ones out there trying to make the world a better place, and indeed Hollywood often populates even its darker portrayals of policing with a few such noble souls who refuse to succumb to corruption. Movies and TV shows frequently adopt what might be called a “one good cop” theory about American law enforcement: “Yes, there are bad apples, but should we throw out the whole batch because of them?”

The new Netflix thriller The Guilty (which opens in theaters today before arriving on the streaming platform next Friday) tries to play with these questions — specifically, the notion of the “one good cop” — and while the film ultimately doesn’t work, I think it’s notable for what it has to say in light of this current political moment. At a time when “defund the police” remains a hot topic, here’s a film that’s a cautionary tale about falling into the trap of believing that all police officers are inherently well-meaning, decent folks.

The movie stars Jake Gyllenhaal, an actor I think audiences generally like. With his charming smile and self-deprecating demeanor, he exudes a non-threatening, adorable vibe. That proves to be a crucial component to his performance in The Guilty, in which he plays Joe, a regular guy living in L.A. working the 911 switchboard in the early morning hours. The job looks absolutely terrible — most of the emergencies are of the “dumbass did something stupid” variety — and as we’ll quickly discover, he’s working the graveyard shift as punishment. But for what? We’re only given small clues at first. A Los Angeles Times reporter keeps calling Joe, wanting to get him on the record for a story that’s about to run. An imminent courtroom appearance looms over him. Eventually, the mystery is swept away: Joe is part of the LAPD, but he’s been demoted because of an incident in the field. He’s awaiting trial, and it sounds like what he did was pretty awful — so awful that the L.A. Times is doing a big piece on him. But how can this be? Jake Gyllenhaal couldn’t do anything bad — he’s one of the good guys.

Of course, Gyllenhaal has subverted his benign persona before for dark dramas like Nightcrawler or as the surprise bad guy in Spider-Man: Far From Home. But The Guilty hits different because it’s a movie in which we’re meant to root for his character. Joe may have screwed up, but the film offers him a shot at redemption that he desperately craves. In the middle of his shift, Joe gets a 911 call from Emily (voiced by Riley Keough), who’s in a panic. She’s been kidnapped by her abusive ex-husband Henry, who’s driving her somewhere on the L.A. freeways. But before Joe can find out where she is, the call drops. This woman is in grave danger, and only he can save the day.

The Guilty is based on a 2018 Danish film, borrowing not just its premise but its overall conceit: Joe spends most of the movie on the phone, talking to different people in the hopes of figuring out where Emily is. This remake features a slew of actors whose voice is all we hear, including Ethan Hawke, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Paul Dano and Peter Sarsgaard. The Guilty is so intimate it could almost be staged as a play, as Gyllenhaal spends the entirety of the picture inside the 911 call center, using the LAPD and California Highway Patrol’s technology to craft clever ways to zero in on Emily’s location. The film doesn’t take place in real time, but it feels like it does.

Directed by Antoine Fuqua, who previously worked with Gyllenhaal on the boxing drama Southpaw, The Guilty has a superficial, caffeinated intensity. But that’s not just because of the story’s beat-the-clock urgency: Over the course of the film, we’ll watch Joe grow more and more stressed, partly because he wants to rescue Emily but also because of his own pressing anxieties. Turns out, he’s got more to worry about than being reprimanded for police misconduct — he’s separated from his wife and child, and he’s hoping for a reconciliation that seems unlikely. Trying to keep it together while freaking out in the bathroom, the medicated, anger-prone Joe is a volcano about to blow. But maybe things will work out. Maybe he can find Emily. Maybe he can prove he’s still a good cop.

The obligatory searching for answers in the mirror shot

Fuqua and Gyllenhaal have both made cop films before, which turns The Guilty into an intriguing commentary on their past work. The director previously worked on Training Day, which might be the perfect template of the “one good cop” drama: Ethan Hawke’s idealistic rookie goes up against Denzel Washington’s King Kong-sized bad cop. Fuqua and Hawke reunited for Brooklyn’s Finest, which examined a series of tormented, morally compromised cops struggling with the pressures of their chosen profession. As for Gyllenhaal, he starred with Michael Peña in End of Watch, which aspired to be a realistic but ultimately sympathetic look at ordinary beat cops navigating L.A.’s mean streets.

In these different projects, Fuqua and Gyllenhaal hardly portrayed police officers as white knights, illustrating how the demands and temptations of the job can easily corrupt individuals. Nonetheless, The Guilty feels like a necessary correction. Joe is presented as a guy down on his luck, but many viewers will assume that there must be some sort of misunderstanding at the heart of his backstory — surely Joe didn’t do anything too wrong — and I like how the film turns that assumption back onto us. Why do we figure Joe’s a good guy? Because he’s played by Jake Gyllenhaal? Because he’s the movie’s main character trying to rescue the damsel in distress? Because he’s a cop?

As audiences will discover, The Guilty is all about the faulty assumptions that we make — even me hinting at what those assumptions might be would ruin the film’s surprises — but one of the most apparent is this idea that Joe’s actually a decent person. Fuqua and Gyllenhaal set us up to believe certain things — or, at the very least, to hope that a cop like Joe is virtuous — and then strip away our illusions. Sometimes, the very flawed person we see in front of us doesn’t require explanation or rationalization. He is who he is.

On the whole, I think The Guilty is a little too amped-up and also a little too predictable. (You’ll see the big twist coming.) And as much as Fuqua and his star have made a big deal of the fact that they shot the whole movie in 11 days, I think the film’s rushed creation contributes to its dashed-off quality — especially when it tries to dissect Joe’s troubled psyche. Still, even if the film unsubtly makes its points near the end, The Guilty feels like a warning about how Hollywood has taught us to think about law enforcement. Maybe it’s time for us to stop automatically assuming that all cops are good. And maybe it’s time for Joe to stop assuming that about himself as well.