While the disgusting factory of Hollywood adaptations churns out the banalest and most uninspired stuff these days, audiences should hold out hope every now and then. The Guilty is that novel concept of planting an individual in a room, isolated from the influence of other parties. Where it worked so well for the Danish-language original was in the unknowable nature of its actors. They are faces that do not define other, major roles. When you place Jake Gyllenhaal into that role, you instead receive the man audiences will define by one grand Hollywood production or another. The Guilty, the latest Netflix feature adaptation, is awash with difficulties and most of them centre on who is within and how they are utilised.
With a one-room drama, the utilisation of an ensemble is best discovered by Locke. One man in a car, chatting with components of his life. The Guilty has that isolated protagonist but has no idea of how to mould him well. He can be surrounded by recognisable voices, from Ethan Hawke to Riley Keough, from Paul Dano, Peter Sarsgaard and beyond, but the effect is underwhelming. Here are actors defined by their physical manifestations, what they can offer to the screen is best presented as an action. A movement audiences can see and feel. Relegated to vocal arrangements, it would make a tad more sense to provide viewers with recognisable voices. It is a cast that decries the cameo role, for all these voices can and will be considered shock value moments for feature articles of the Buzzfeed-led future.
But that is not the fault of The Guilty. Where it turns a sour note, it is not because of the cast. These are the technical merits of a deranged fool. Antoine Fuqua is a name synonymous with quality. The Equalizer and Training Day are monumentally strict and tightly wound features that best express those notes of consistency. But somewhere within The Guilty, he loses his originality. His voice is suppressed by the red lights and uninterested notes of complete banality. It is a grim, grim affair. His direction cannot suppress the ideas of the original, nor can it expand on them. They are lingering in the background, never making much of a remarkable impact. Fuqua frustrates his audience not with incompetency, but through the panicked realisation that any adaptation of such a great original is doomed to fail.
Good concepts in an adaptation turned sour. Why bother adapting The Guilty? Its suspense is defined by the characteristics of its director and its original language. What The Guilty is, is less of an experience. It is less fulfilling, less experienced and less engaging. That “one-inch barrier” subtitles provide is not an issue audiences hold, but one that Netflix and other production companies create. Was there any chance a thriller adaptation with Bill Burr in it would set the world on fire? It didn’t happen for The Front Runner, and that was quite good. Why would it happen for The Guilty, a film whose only crime is the act of dense perjury, and not good perjury, either. That could be forgivable, if a bit annoying. Instead, the Americanised adaptation of this fine, simple story is turned into a rotten and unforgivably dull piece.