This article contains The Guilty spoilers. You can read our spoiler-free review here.
The Guilty, Antoine Fuqua’s new Netflix thriller starring Jake Gyllenhaal, is a tense one-man show that finds Gyllenhaal as disgraced cop Joe Baylor, working at an L.A. emergency response center on a particularly busy night. With wildfires raging, complicating responses to even the simplest of 911 calls, Joe receives a peculiar call from a woman named Emily (Riley Keough) who appears to be talking to her child. Upon further investigation, it seems that Emily is the victim of a kidnapping at the hands of her ex-husband Henry (Peter Sarsgaard). Joe’s hero instincts go into high gear and he’s suddenly commanding California Highway Patrol and his ex-partner Rick (Eli Goree) to make every effort possible—whether legal or no —to rescue Emily and return her to her children.
However, it’s clear to the viewer that Joe doesn’t have the entire story. It’s also evident that acting on impulse may have been what got Joe Baylor into trouble to begin with. We learn that Joe’s natural intensity has been amped up due to the fact that he’s awaiting trial the next day for killing a man while on active duty, an action he cannot explain or rationalize, despite his former sergeant (Ethan Hawke) and others indicating that he’ll be acquitted and back on patrol in no time. Joe feels compelled to rescue Emily and reunite her with her daughter Abby to prove that he can save lives and that he’s more than his mistake.
Still, Joe’s read on the situation is completely wrong. First, two LAPD officers perform a wellness check on Abby, who was left at Emily’s home when she was supposedly kidnapped. They discover that Abby is covered in blood and that her brother, Oliver, has been gravely injured and isn’t just “sleeping” as Abby told Joe over the phone. It appears that Oliver has been stabbed in his stomach multiple times. Joe gets back on the phone with Emily and tries to coach her through an escape, but when that doesn’t work as planned, Joe once again asks Emily about Oliver and she describes that he was sick. She said she believed Oliver had “snakes in his stomach” and she decided to “take them out.”
If that isn’t disconcerting enough, when Rick unlawfully enters Henry’s apartment on Joe’s orders, he discovers documents pertaining to Emily’s stay inside of a San Bernadino psychiatric facility. When Joe finally speaks to Henry with the full picture in mind, Henry reveals he was taking Emily back to the facility. He explains that she had been off her meds due to the medical costs and that after Emily hurt Oliver, he didn’t phone the police due to distrust after the system failed them once before. Emily had run off after hitting Henry with a brick on Joe’s suggestion, and now Henry can’t locate her.
Emily calls Joe back from atop of an overpass and indicates that she’s going to jump to her death to be with Oliver. It’s here that Joe reveals his own situation of how he killed a man in an effort to relate with Emily. It momentarily works, but the Emily reiterates that she’s “gonna go be with Oliver” and hangs up. Thankfully, CHP calls and informs Joe that they were able to get Emily down from the overpass and that Oliver’s wounds were not fatal, and he’s in stable condition in the hospital.
After all of the drama, Joe calls Rick back and tells him to tell the truth on the witness stand at Joe’s trial the next day, despite what they may have previously rehearsed. Joe knows he will go to prison but he aims to face the consequences of his actions, regardless of how severe they might be. Joe then calls a reporter from the LA Times that was repeatedly trying to get ahold of him, and reveals that he is going to plead guilty to manslaughter. The film ends with news reports indicating that Joe was found guilty.
The Guilty’s entire theme can be summed up by the officer that lets Baylor know that Oliver is in the ICU. She says, “Broken people save broken people,” and it explains why Joe tried so ferociously to help Emily, even after it’s revealed that she hurt her own child: Joe Baylor has a lot of work to do on himself. His behavior throughout the film highlights how he may have made a quick, dangerous decision, and it led to him shooting an innocent man. His experiences on this night now force him to stop avoiding and rationalizing his actions; he sees them for what they are. But by helping another guilty soul like himself, he’s started down the road to redemption. Admitting that he was guilty was the first real step.