It’s never a good night to be a 911 police dispatcher. It’s that much worse having to do it in Los Angeles, the city being so large and spread out. Wildfires make this particular night — early morning, actually — especially bad.
“There’s wind and smoke everywhere,” a California Highway Patrol supervisor says to Joe Baylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) when he alerts her to an emergency on the freeway. Everywhere would seem to include the call center where Joe works: He keeps having to use an inhaler and is subject to coughing fits. Not what you want to hear at the in-distress end of a 911 call.
The red glow of the fires fills oversize monitors throughout the call center. There’s also a red light by each dispatcher’s computer monitor — it’s like the light on top of a police cruiser — which flashes whenever there’s a new call. Since “The Guilty” never strays from the center and its immediate vicinity, these provide welcome visual relief. They also add to the tension, which is considerable.
The film, which opens at the Kendall Square Sept. 24, starts streaming on Netflix Oct. 1.
There’s a lot of action in “The Guilty,” but it’s all off screen, and more described than heard. Antoine Fuqua, the director, has a track record making action movies (the two ”Equalizer” pictures, the 2016 “Magnificent Seven” remake). He knows how to keep things energetic, with lots of cutting, but not too much; shifting camera angles; and using screens for kinetic variety.
The strongest kinetic effect is Gyllenhaal’s face. His many close-ups are the equivalent here of car chases or fistfights. Over the course of 90 minutes, Joe gets a serious workout. It’s not just the pressure from the calls he takes (all that coughing, too). He’s a police detective who’s spent the last eight months demoted to 911 duty because of a disciplinary action. His hearing is scheduled for later that day. A version of all those wildfires is going on inside his head.
Like Joe, we hear the callers without seeing them. Among the voice talent are Ethan Hawke, Paul Dano, Bill Burr, and Eli Goree (who was Cassius Clay in “One Night in Miami”), as Joe’s former partner. Most important of all are a married couple, Emily and Henry, their voices belonging to Riley Keough (”Zola”) and Peter Sarsgaard (in real life, Gyllenhaal’s brother-in-law). Joe’s involvement in their situation increasingly dominates the movie.
“The Guilty” is based on a 2018 Danish film, ”Den skyldige.” Some viewers may be reminded of another movie, the 2013 Tom Hardy tour de force “Locke.” That, too, is about a man constantly on the phone in an enclosed space (his car) and an increasingly tight spot, shown in real time.
“The Guilty” gets less and less plausible, not least of all in how neatly it ties together various plot elements. For its first 40 minutes or so, the movie shows how much Gyllenhaal and Fuqua can do with little. Confinement becomes a dramatic launching pad. Then melodrama kicks in, and what had been a gripping offbeat thriller becomes a morality tale (including a truly shameless plot twist). Joe has been on the edge from the get-go. Going over the edge, he takes the movie with him.
Directed by Antoine Fuqua. Written by Nic Pizzolatto; adapted from the Danish film “Den skyldige,” written by Gustav Möller and Emily Nygaard Albertsen. Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Riley Keough, Eli Goree, Peter Sarsgaard. At Kendall Square; starts streaming on Netflix Oct. 1. 89 minutes. R (language throughout, emotionally intense situations, descriptions of children in peril)
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.