Film reviews: The Guilty | Next Door | Freakscene | Oliver Sacks: His Own Life

Starring Jake Gyllenhaal as an LAPD cop trying to thwart a kidnap over the phone, The Guilty is a claustrophobic and admirably taut thriller, writes Alistair Harkness

Jake Gyllenhaal in The Guilty PIC: NETFLIX © 2021

The Guilty (15) ****

Next Door (N/R) ***

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Freakscene: The Story of Dinosaur Jr (15) ***

Oliver Sacks: His Own Life (15) ***

Jake Gyllenhaal teams up with Training Day director Antoine Fuqua for The Guilty, a stripped-down LA cop movie about a disgraced detective (Gyllenhaal) seeking redemption following a questionable use of force. The movie opens with Gyllenhaal’s character, Joe Baylor, doing professional penance as an emergency services dispatcher ahead of a court hearing that will decide his future. Though outwardly confident that he’ll soon be back on the streets, the inner turmoil that’s been gnawing away at Joe for months soon starts bubbling over when he gets a kidnapping-in-progress call from a woman whom he resolves to save himself.

Though this set up brings to mind Halle Berry thriller The Call, the film is actually a remake of an acclaimed 2018 Danish film and, for all the remake’s slick Hollywood gloss, it remains an edgier, more formalistically daring proposition. Its single-location setting (we never leave the soulless control room) keeps us in its character’s headspace and by transposing the story to the US, Fuqua and screenwriter Nic Pizzolatto (True Detective) tap into the the current moment by further dismantling the notion of the hero cop without being blasé about the complexities of the job.

As he did with Denzel Washington’s corrupt detective in Training Day, Fuqua uses Gyllenhaal’s Joe to examine the way the shifting parameters of the job have rendered institutional criminality so commonplace that police accountability is headline news. We see this reflected in Gyllenhaal’s performance, with Fuqua keeping his camera on him at all times, only occasionally pulling back from his gaunt and pallid features to survey news reports of the real-time wild fires that seem to be turning LA into a metaphorical circle of hell. All of which helps up the intensity of a film in which the drama plays out in close-up on Gyllenhaal’s face and in the panicked voice of the woman (Riley Keough) he’s trying to help. Vocal cameos from Ethan Hawke, Paul Dano and Peter Sarsgaard add further texture to this claustrophobic and admirably taut thriller.

Next Door PIC: Amusement Park Film

Directed by and starring German-Spanish actor Daniel Brühl, Next Door sees the former Marvel villain – he played Baron Zemo in Captain America: Civil War – having fun with his own industry position by casting himself as a somewhat supercilious actor (also called “Daniel”) on the verge of scoring a career-changing role as a comic-book-movie villain. Set on the day he’s due to fly to London for a casting call, the film takes shape around a not-so-random encounter he has in a bar with a grudge-holding neighbour (Peter Kurth) upset abut the unthinking role Daniel has played in gentrifying the East Berlin apartment building they share. It’s a set up that could have made for a dark thriller, but Brühl keeps the tone more satirical, leaning into the meta quality of the story with gags at his own expense that also show up the divisive feelings locals have about the way the city’s history has been romanticised by western filmmakers and artists. It’s a small scale film and though it’s a little contrived and stagey, the way Brühl shoots and plays “Daniel” results in a sly portrait of someone who’s very comfortable being looked at, but not scrutinised.

Before Nirvana broke the US underground rock scene wide open with the release of Nevermind 30 years ago, Dinosaur Jr had been pioneering what would soon be known as grunge for years via an ultra-loud wall-of-sound-style onslaught of blistering guitars and slacker vocals, both courtesy of creative driving force J Mascis. As outlined in Freakscene: The Story of Dinosaur Jr, though, the band’s success was rooted in the dynamics between the trio’s founding members: Mascis, drummer Murph and bassist Lou Barlow, whose early gigs bridged the gap between hardcore punk and the melodic feedback fervour of Crazy Horse-era Neil Young. That incarnation of the band split before the post-Nirvana gold rush increased Dinosaur Jr’s mainstream profile, but the original line-up reformed in 2005 and seem to have evolved into a kind dysfunctional family unit that just happens to get together to tour and record every few years. Directed by music video veteran (and Mascis’s brother-in-law) Philipp Reichenheim, the film teases out this thesis through interviews with the band and other luminaries of the era – Kim Gordon, Henry Rollins, Black Francis, Thurston Moore – and, though it skips over the creation of the titular Freakscene (the seminal alt-rock anthem that helped make them), the grainy visuals and performance footage give a good sense of the times while also making a case for Dinosaur Jr’s continued relevance.

Oliver Sacks: His Own Life offers some fascinating insights into the late neurologist and best-selling author whose pioneering work found more acceptance after being dramatised in the feel-good Robin Williams/Robert De Niro movie Awakenings. Sacks’s own life was anything but feel-good, though. From his mentally ill brother and their monstrous-sounding mother (a physician who brought home dead foetuses for ten-year-old Oliver to dissect), to his struggles with his sexuality and his drug addiction, his life was like an open wound that he salved with his work and his writing. Following the irrepressible Sacks over the last year of his life, the film becomes something of a testament to the healing power of compassion.

The Guilty is in cinemas now and streams on Netflix from 1 October; Next Door is on selected release and available on demand from Curzon Home Cinema from 1 October, Freakscene: The Story of Dinosaur Jr is on selected release from 1 October; Oliver Sacks: His Own Life is in cinemas from 29 September and on digital demand from 4 October.

Freakscene

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