When police officer Joe Baylor got demoted, he wasn’t happy about it.
It’s not clear exactly why he was taken off the beat, but his upcoming court appearance will determine whether he returns to working the streets. For now, he’ll have to settle into his job operating the phones as a 911 dispatcher.
Only Joe doesn’t seem to be able to take his cop hat off.
Rather than relaying phone calls to the proper authorities, he tries to dole out justice on his own. He purposely waits to send help to people he thinks brought it upon themselves, such as a drug user and a guy who got robbed by a prostitute he hired.
So when Joe gets a phone call from a woman who’s been abducted, he takes it upon himself to find her and save her from her captor.
Joe does everything he can to save Emily (the woman who was kidnapped) and to help her children, Abby and Oliver, who were left behind. He offers reassuring words and sends officers out to them.
While assisting them, Joe makes several mistakes, almost resulting in disaster. But this helps him to realize he made mistakes as a cop as well. Joe resolves to tell the truth at a court trial (he and his partner had been planning to lie), even though he knows he will be sent to jail and unable to see his own daughter, whom he loves.
A title card at the beginning of the film quotes John 8:32: “And the truth shall make you free.”
A man worries that his wife will find out he hired a prostitute. He calls the woman “voluptuous,” and Joe later refers to her as a “broad.” We hear about two married couples who are legally separated.
Through a series of phone calls to Emily, Joe ascertains that she was taken by her husband, Henry, whom she is separated from and who has a history of assault. We also learn that their two children, Abby (who is 6) and Oliver (who is a baby), are stuck home alone.
Joe instructs Emily to do several things in an attempt to escape. He tells her to buckle her seatbelt (Henry isn’t wearing one, she tells Joe) and pull the emergency brake. We hear the car tires screech and later learn that it didn’t work.
In a phone call to Abby, Joe hears officers arrive and find Abby covered in blood. “It’s not mine,” she tells them. Joe then hears them discover an injured Oliver. It’s not described, but the officers panic, checking to see if the infant is still breathing and calling for an ambulance.
Emily calls back to tell Joe that Henry put her in the back of the van he’s driving. Joe tells her to find something to defend herself with, and she finds a box of bricks. Joe tells Emily to hit Henry with a brick as hard as she can. “He deserves it,” he reassures her. We hear Emily follow his instructions. (Though we later learn that Henry, while hurt, isn’t critically injured.)
In the background of 911 calls, we hear gunshots, fights and car crashes. We hear about knives being pulled on people. Several people call fearing that they will die in the wildfires ravaging California (which we see footage of on the TVs at the dispatch center). We also hear harsh verbal threats, as well as seeing someone smash a lamp in frustration.
[Spoiler Warning] Emily (who has a history of mental illness) tells Joe that Oliver was in pain and crying. She removed “the snakes” from Oliver’s belly since they were hurting him. Emily’s emotional instability also leads to an unsuccessful suicide attempt.
We hear the f-word about 60 times and the s-word 15 times. There are also uses of “a–,” “a–hole,” “d–n,” “d–mit” and “h—.” God’s name is abused 12 times (twice paired with “d–mit”), and Christ’s name is abused another seven.
Joe calls his former partner and deduces that the man has been drinking. He offers to get a beer with another coworker. He assists a man over the phone who has overdosed on amphetamines. Someone says his wife is “off her meds.”
Joe breaks a lot of laws to help Emily and her family. When other officers refuse to search Henry’s home without a warrant, he asks his former partner (who’s off-duty) to go “kick in the door” and search for evidence. (His partner obliges, and we later learn the man was planning to lie on the witness stand for Joe.) He also calls Henry on his personal phone in order to threaten the man (since all calls are recorded on his work phone).
Many of the people who call 911 are frightened or even angry. Joe helps them, but he’s often curt. And while some of these people are quite rude, Joe also lashes out at his coworkers. And his supervisor tells him to adjust his poor attitude. And Joe eventually admits that he has anger issues that go beyond the normal stress of being a police officer.
There’s a bit of an anti-police sentiment voiced by several people whom Joe talks to. When Joe tries to assure Abby that police are protectors, she says they aren’t because they took her daddy away. Henry says he didn’t call the cops about Oliver because he didn’t think they would help.
There is a joke about constipation. We see and hear characters vomiting.
People lie. A journalist repeatedly calls Joe on his personal phone trying to trick him into answering her questions ahead of the trial. We hear that someone has multiple unpaid parking tickets.
The Guilty is a strange film. It’s full of violent actions, but you never see them onscreen. Instead, we see things (or rather hear them) from Joe’s point of view.
But the descriptive language doesn’t mollify the story’s brutality. In fact, it almost seems to exaggerate it since this method of storytelling allows our (and Joe’s) imaginations run wild. (And it doesn’t help that the film is riddled with foul language, either.)
Joe makes many false assumptions about Emily and her family. It’s a mistake he makes as a 911 operator, but it’s also a mistake he made as a cop. And although he’d like to believe he’s the good guy trying to help good people, that’s not always true.
“Broken people save broken people,” his supervisor says. And that’s exactly what Joe is: a broken guy trying to help other broken people.
But it isn’t until Joe recognizes that he didn’t have all the information—that he had been lied to and made bad choices based on those lies—that he’s finally able to come to terms with himself. Joe’s messed up, but the truth (as the film’s title card tells us in a solitary moment of biblical truth) will set him free.
Still, let’s not give The Guilty too much credit here. This R-rated psychological thriller mostly avoids graphic imagery, but its grim story is no less unnerving and disturbing.
Emily studied film and writing when she was in college. And when she isn’t being way too competitive while playing board games, she enjoys food, sleep, and indulging in her “nerdom,” which is the collective fan cultures of everything she loves, such as Star Wars and Lord of the Rings.