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Jake Gyllenhaal plays reassigned police officer Joe Bayler in the Netflix thriller The Guilty.

GLEN WILSON/Netflix

When talking to filmmakers, it’s always fascinating to realize that the movie they think they’ve made is not necessarily the movie you saw. You saw something that took a swing and missed – that didn’t hold together or ring true. They, on the other hand, see what they intended to make – something subtle, nuanced, bold. But if they’re passionate enough, they can make you more sympathetic to their vision. Sometimes they even change your mind.

With the new Netflix drama The Guilty, director Antoine Fuqua (The Equalizer) and star/producer Jake Gyllenhaal set out to make a real-time thriller about Joe (Gyllenhaal), a Los Angeles cop reassigned to a 911 call centre on one particularly tense night. We never see the faces of his many callers; instead, we watch Joe’s face, closely, as he makes assumptions about them and acts accordingly.

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So tucked inside the thriller is a provocative examination of “the misconceptions, perceptions, judgments and projections” that we have or make of one another, often with disastrous results, Gyllenhaal said in a joint Zoom interview with Fuqua during the Toronto International Film Festival. “The entire point of the movie is that we assume.”

In 2018, Gyllenhaal saw the original, Danish version of The Guilty; it showcased the power of an audience listening and using its imagination, which was also evident in the skyrocketing popularity of immersive, true-crime podcasts such as Serial. He immediately thought that “transposing it into a North American context would create interesting questions.”

He was also in the middle of a year of doing a solo stage show in New York, called A Life, in which his character tells the audience stories about the death of his father and the birth of his first child. (There’s a terrific 10-minute clip on YouTube.) “I could feel the visceral switch when an audience’s imagination goes on,” Gyllenhaal said. “I saw the power of that – I could feel the power of that. I knew it could be possible cinematically in the same way.” (To add another layer of art begetting art, it was the documentary Free Solo, about an audacious mountain climber, that inspired Gyllenhaal to take on the one-man play.)

When COVID-19 struck, Fuqua and his star realized The Guilty could be shot safely: one main actor, one location. They also folded in other timely issues: In an echo of the George Floyd case (and too many others), Joe is about to go to trial for murdering someone he was arresting; in a nod to our climate emergency, California wildfires hamper Joe’s rescue efforts. Fuqua and Gyllenhaal invited friends to play callers, and everyone said yes, including Ethan Hawke (who worked with Fuqua on Training Day), Peter Sarsgaard (Gyllenhaal’s brother-in-law), Riley Keough, Da’Vine Joy Randolph and Paul Dano.

During the 11-day shoot, Fuqua filmed long, 20- and 30-minute takes, with his actors poised in their homes in Australia, Los Angeles, London and New York, waiting their turn to phone in. “When you have incredible actors making those calls, the listening becomes incredibly easy,” Gyllenhaal said. “Every call that came in was alive. That makes the audience lean in.”

Gyllenhaal was as trapped as his character: the only person unmasked on set, the crew wrapped in plastic suits, the camera jammed into his face, and all of the drama playing out in his expressive blue eyes. But Fuqua had faith it would work, because “just watching Jake’s face is exciting to me; it’s magic,” he said. (“That makes one of us,” Gyllenhaal replied drily.)

On top of all that, Gyllenhaal also had to live inside Joe’s rage. Anger is the character’s fallback emotion; any self-realization he has, or responsibility he accepts, has to battle its way through that. The actor took some of that home – Fuqua gave him “a beautiful bottle of red wine” before they began shooting, and he finished it after day one.

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“But that’s actually the best part of my job, particularly in the period of time we were shooting,” Gyllenhaal said. “My work gives me the opportunity to exorcise feelings that so many people would be holding in – about the climate emergency, the police killings, the pandemic. I’m so grateful I have a safe space to come to and express the anger I have, the pain I’m feeling, the anxieties and the terror I think we’re all feeling. It’s the essence of why I love to act.”

The film never says that Joe’s victim is Black – when I confessed to Fuqua that I made that assumption, he simply raised his eyebrows at me in an “Mm-hmm, you’re proving what we’re saying” kind of way – but it does ask us to empathize with one of the least sympathetic figures in North America right now: a cop who kills on the job.

“Anton and I talked a lot about mental health, and how our systems provide very little for people in situations like this,” Gyllenhaal said. “Most of the time, 911 dispatchers don’t know what happens to the people they’re helping. They get 100 calls on a shift, then go home and don’t know if any of the 100 survived. How does someone hold that emotionally? No matter what mental or emotional fortitude you have, that’s hard. And that’s just a microcosm of so many first responders.”

“It’s mental warfare, day in and day out,” Fuqua said. “For first responders, their daily job is the worst moment in people’s lives. We need to try to gain a better understanding of how these high-stress jobs affect people like cops. What is our system doing to check in on them?”

“We are dealing with human beings,” Gyllenhaal said. “We should be open, and open-hearted enough to have discussions about what happens to people, that leads them to make choices. That’s the power of art, it’s an opportunity for a discussion.”

So, did they convince me? More importantly, did they convince you?

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The Guilty is available in theatres Sept. 24 and streaming on Netflix starting Oct. 1.

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