The Guilty, Antoine Fuqua’s remake of Swedish director Gustav Möller’s masterful 2018 thriller of the same name, barely strays from its source material for more than a fleeting moment. So why is it, then, that the two films couldn’t be more different?
Both films follow a cop who is placed on 9-1-1 duty after killing a teenager on the job. While working the phones, he receives a call from a distressed woman who claims she has been kidnapped by her children’s father. The two are abruptly disconnected, and the protagonist becomes obsessed with saving this woman’s life.
At first, identifying the titular guilty seems simple enough. The kidnapped woman, named Emily (Riley Keough) in the American version, has been forcibly taken by her child’s father, Henry (Peter Sarsgaard). By any standard, this makes Henry the film’s Bad Guy. But we’re thrown for a loop when we learn that Emily is guilty of stabbing her baby, Oliver. However, Henry argues that the murder is not actually Emily’s fault, but rather the fault of the convoluted and aloof healthcare system that wouldn’t listen when he said she needed help.
But then we learn about our protagonist Joe’s (Jake Gyllenhaal) murder of an innocent teen, which leads us to suspect he is only invested in Emily’s case in an attempt to even out his own moral playing field. But, by doing that, he almost takes two new lives: Emily’s and Henry’s. And then—because all of that hasn’t already given us enough moral whiplash—the film ends with a voiceover explaining just how many cops get away with misconduct every year. Wait, so are we “the guilty” for sympathizing with a cop? Are we the enemy now? Help! I’m exhausted!
Yes, it is indeed exhausting. But what is it, exactly, that makes The Guilty (2021), and not The Guilty (2018), such a tiring viewing experience? After all, it’s certainly not the first movie that makes it difficult to identify the good guy and the bad guy. No, the problem doesn’t come from the film’s ambiguity, but rather its lack thereof.
Fuqua’s remake hardly makes any changes from Möller’s original. In fact, the only real differences between the two are the characters’ names. The runtimes are pretty much the same, give or take a couple of minutes. Even the new script seems to be a mere translation of the original, give or take a couple of words. Yet Möller’s The Guilty ultimately succeeds where Fuqua’s falls short.
This shortcoming is based on a subtle, yet crucial, tonal shift. In both films, it’s unclear who we’re supposed to root for. But in the original, we aren’t expected to come away with any answers. Möller’s film ends with its protagonist, Asger Holm (Jakob Cedergren), confessing to the kidnapped woman, Iben (Jessica Dinnage), that he needlessly killed someone. His expression is all but blank. The only hint of emotion on his face is a sheen of sweat on his temple and a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it creasing of his eyebrows. Then, he walks out of the police station. It could be that he is walking toward a new beginning. Or to his inevitable downfall. The truth is, where Asger ends up doesn’t really matter. Möller allows us to wonder what’s next for him without showing him as overly contrite, or picking apart his motive for confessing. Perhaps he wanted to avoid hurting anyone else. Maybe he really did feel guilty, or was just tired of being treated like a criminal by his peers.
The ending of Fuqua’s film, on the other hand, ramps the emotions up to eleven. After getting off the phone with Emily, Joe vomits and crumples to the floor of a bathroom stall, proceeding to cry on the phone to his friend, begging him not to cover for him in court. (Note that in Möller’s version, Asger tells his friend he doesn’t have to lie “if he doesn’t want to”). The last time we see Joe, he’s trapped within the four walls of the cubicle as the camera lingers above him. If that image wasn’t obvious enough, we get a voiceover news report explaining that he has been convicted of manslaughter, and then adds commentary about police brutality.
The way I see it, Fuqua’s The Guilty ends in such a way that only two outcomes are possible: Joe is totally reformed, or Joe is totally screwed. The fact that baby Oliver doesn’t actually die in this version also leaves room for the universe to give Joe a second chance. On the other hand, he is sentenced to jail, so there’s that. Either way, the intensity of the film is so dialed up that it doesn’t leave any room for a third possibility between bad-to-the-bone Joe or totally reformed Joe. Perhaps in the original, Asger felt bad but was also an inherently rotten person. Isn’t that just a little more interesting?
This on-the-nose mentality isn’t a singular problem in adaptations. Rather, it arises often in the Americanization of international films, even when the same filmmaker is at the helm. Take, for instance, George Sluizer’s 1993 English-language remake of his own 1988 Dutch film, The Vanishing. Where the original—which follows Rex (Gene Bervoets) on a search for his missing girlfriend, Saskia (Johanna ter Steege)—thrives on its traversal of an understated, inevitable psyop, the remake attempts to establish its protagonist (Kiefer Sutherland) as a hero on a quest to bring a bad guy to justice. A similar problem arises in Michael Haneke’s thriller Funny Games (2007), which he remade, shot-for-shot, from his own Austrian film from a decade prior. The 2007 version shouldn’t feel much different from its predecessor, but…it does. It really does. What makes the original so scary is that the protagonists are so stunned and resigned to the fact that their home is being invaded that they come off as passive. They know they cannot stop the inevitable. But in the newer version, the couple (Naomi Watts and Tim Roth) cannot help but burst at the seams with emotion.
Hollywood has always seemed to feel an urgency to remake great foreign films, which often yields less than favorable results—especially recently. Take Downhill, the American remake of Force Majeure, a Swedish film that won the Jury Prize at Cannes in 2014. Where the former subtly scrutinizes a critical lapse in marital communication, the remake flattens any complexity in its protagonists’ relationship and turns a devastating story into a near-parody of middle-aged marriage scuffles. Similarly, City of Angels, Brad Silberling’s remake of Wim Wenders’ intensely affecting Wings of Desire, takes the emotional details of its predecessor and whacks its audience over the head with them. And don’t even get me started on Ghost in the Shell, Rupert Sanders’ anime adaptation, which completely drowns itself in exposition and capital-T Themes.
And these adaptations aren’t stopping anytime soon, with Leonardo DiCaprio supposedly slated to star in a remake of Thomas Vinterberg’s Oscar-winning Another Round, and of course, the controversial remake of Train to Busan looming dangerously close on the horizon. But why does it feel more likely than not that these films will follow the bleak trend of Hollywood stripping nuance from its remakes?
The answer can be gleaned from the final moments of The Guilty. In addition to Joe’s outburst, the film ending with a focus on recent incidents of police misconduct feels jarringly irrelevant to the plot. Indeed, many of Joe’s inner battles and outer actions hinge upon the fact that he killed someone while on the job, but at no point does the film ask whether or not he’s going to be convicted. It’s about whether he is experiencing guilt, and how that affects him.
So why end the film on this note? It is possible that Fuqua felt that police brutality is too big of an issue not to bring up concretely in a film that makes mention of it. Of course, it isn’t a stretch to say that police brutality, and the shameful subsequent lack of accountability is a more prevalent issue in the United States than in other countries (like Denmark). And so it is likely that Fuqua decided that, as an American film, The Guilty has a moral obligation to explore the issue, since, in a time of much-needed social change, American audiences expect filmmakers to reflect goals of equality and justice. This, added to the fact that American films have always had a tendency to cling to themes of morality anyway because of the consumer’s need to feel productive—like they haven’t wasted time watching a film, like they’ve really learned something—sadly turns the adaptation into a messy, moral sandstorm.
Alternatively, Fuqua might have implemented the voiceover because he was worried that the film’s moral angle wasn’t clear enough, as American films often don’t believe their audiences are capable of interpreting something on their own. Despite all the blame-shifting and flip-flopping in the film—from accusing Henry, to accusing Emily, to accusing Joe—we don’t really come away with clear answers as to how sympathy and punishment should be metered out. And in Möller’s version, that’s an acceptable ending. But for Fuqua, it simply won’t fly. Whatever Fuqua’s reason for his jarring finale, it makes for an ending that’s obvious at worst and confusing at best, where more subtlety would have allowed breathing room for Joe to authentically walk the shaky tightrope of guilt, and wouldn’t have forced the film to blanch in the shadow of its predecessor.
Aurora Amidon is a film journalist and passionate defender of Hostel: Part II. Follow her on Twitter for her latest questionable culture takes.