‘The Guilty’ and the Problem with American Remake Films


Martha Pollard argues that the imitation of foreign film is rarely the sincerest form of flattery

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By Martha Pollard

Is a reproduction ever as good as the original? Can we imagine a copy of a famous painting –  perhaps a rough imitation of Van Gogh’s Starry Night or Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring – ever matching up to the quality of its source?

Most people would agree that the originality of a piece of art is what makes it great: knowing that it has its own story to tell within a unique context. This was not, however, a thought that crossed the minds of Netflix producers when they signed off on The Guilty (2021).

Based on the 2018 Danish thriller of the same name, The Guilty is a film that didn’t need to be made. Both films follow a police officer awaiting trial for misconduct, who has been assigned to work as an emergency call operator. On receiving a call from a woman who claims to have been abducted, he must unravel the truth of the crime and find her kidnapper while confined to a single desk.

The original film is an understated masterwork that builds suspense through its pauses, rather than constant action. It’s set in a mundane office with harsh industrial lighting and a claustrophobic atmosphere. The characters are tired, reserved, and - in the case of our protagonist, Asger - morally ambiguous. Unfortunately, the subtlety of his character disappears when it comes to Jake Gyllenhaal’s American counterpart, Joe.

The problem is that much of what worked about Gustave Möller’s original has been lost in translation. There is a certain moralising tendency in American cinema that prefers to reduce complex, open-ended stories and characters into simplistic binaries of ‘good and bad’. To me, this was most apparent in how the remake handles Asger/Joe’s ‘misconduct’. In both films, his confession comes at a climactic point. But in the original, the emotional weight of the moment is left to sit with the viewer; in the remake, we are clubbed around the head with it.

Joe’s ‘punishment’ later constitutes the film’s forced resolution, and the heavy-handed finale which follows. In the original, however, we end on an intriguing shot of Asger staring out of the window, ringing someone unknown, before fading to black. No judgement is passed. Like all good thrillers, it leaves us asking questions.

Whilst Joe still faces justice in the remake, there is a contrived attempt to force the audience into sympathising with him. Epitomising this dilemma is a subplot surrounding the young daughter from whom the protagonist is estranged, and whose picture he regularly stares at throughout. This is unnecessary - a desperate effort to afford his character more depth and nuance, in a film lacking in both.

The crucial flaw of The Guilty (2021), aside from cringeworthy dialogue and over-acting, is that it can’t escape the long shadow of America’s police force. The idea that “police are protectors” (an actual line spoken by Gyllenhaal in the film) leaves a sour taste; it seems tone-deaf with the current moment. The Danish original omitted these problematic connotations in a way that the American version was not self-aware enough to do.

Something is lost when films are Americanised in this way, worsened by the fact that most people won’t get to see Möller’s original version. Experiencing another country’s cinema can give you a unique insight into its culture. Take the 2020 Danish film, Druk (Another Round), a dark comedy about drinking culture that never becomes alienating or nationalistic, despite being steeped in Danishness. And, lo and behold, there is apparently an English-language remake in the works…

Recent years have seen many fantastic foreign films achieving mainstream success, a prime example being South Korean triumph, Parasite (2019), and its Best Picture win at the Oscars. Then come the inevitable English-language remakes that waste money, talent, and the chance to make something of actual value for the sake of commercial success.

Now, occasionally a remake can take another film as inspiration and create something new and innovative. A Fistful of Dollars, Twelve Monkeys, and The Departed are some examples of highly-acclaimed American remakes. But, far more often than not, the commercial adaptation doesn’t do justice to its source material. Not only that, but it dissuades English-speaking audiences from watching the originals and experiencing the richness of world cinema.

Are we really so incapable of reading subtitles? Or is it that we are not capable of relating to a story about people who don't look like us or talk like us? In the words of Bong Joon-ho, Parasite’s director -“Once you overcome the 1-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films." With that in mind, let’s not subject ourselves to sitting through another film like The Guilty (2021)

Editor's Note: Both films discussed are available on Netflix UK