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  • Writer's pictureRoberto Nieves

The Guilty is a Movie about the Mental Struggles of our First Responders

You likely didn't expect an article about a movie to be on Stack Up's Blog, but every so often, a movie, or show, comes along that can strike a chord, and as a writer, you simply have the urge to get the thoughts out there, especially when it entertains to the topic of mental health. Such is the case of a new Netflix movie, The Guilty. Netflix has been an endless train in regards to content over the past few years, and double-so with its original films. There have been some fantastic movies, such as Spencer Confidential and Outside The Wire, and then there are movies that get you thinking. Movies normally occur within the realm of fiction and suspension of disbelief, but then a movie can hit close to home, which is the case of The Guilty, starring Jake Gyllenhaal. The movie recently debuted on Netflix and is directed by Antoine Fuqua, who directed Olympus Has Fallen, the remake of The Magnificent Seven, and both The Equalizer and The Equalizer 2. This isn't so much a review of the movie, but if you have to know, it's another remarkably strong thriller from the director that is worth watching. Though, where I came away immensely satisfied with Antoine's recent works, this one had me thinking of the mental occurrences happening on-screen and how it gets the audience to think about both stress and the pressures within the 1st responder community.

The Guilty takes place over one long night in Los Angeles, California. Fires rage in the hill, sending the horizon into a terrible illumination of orange and yellow. Soul-crushing traffic turns the interstate into a parking lot, and helicopters are abuzz in the hazy skies. For disgruntled LAPD officer Joe Baylor (Jake Gyllenhaal), it's the last night of the night shift as a 911 Dispatcher following an incident that took place on patrol many months prior. He's hoping for it to be just like any other night so he can get back on patrol and back out onto the field. Soon enough, the calls start flooding into the Dispatch Center. An accident, a robbery, a drunk call here and there, but one call becomes remarkably alarming. A woman calls from the back of a van, abducted and severely panicked. Joe shakes off his weariness and roars into a fixation, heightened and sharp. Joe has answered many calls before, but something about this call, this complete and total stranger, locks him into attention. What begins is a dark and fearful night where every word said and heard is a matter of life and death at every moment.

There are so many positive things that I could say about The Guilty. The entire movie focuses on Jake Gyllenhaal's performance. The movie leaves the 911 Dispatch center for a few brief scenes, but the whole movie centers around Jake and his moods during the film. Every drop of sweat from his pores and every flicker of his eyebrow indicates the suspense and tension of a scene. The look in his eyes and every expression on his face determines the scenes of calm chaos and frantic panic. Film enthusiasts could possibly compare this to Alfred Hitchock and his use of claustrophobic, enclosed spaces to convey a sense of wire-thin tension.

As Joe makes calls and receives them, the audience is left to listen to the words of those on the other line, what they hear, and imagine exactly what is happening. The bark of a vicious dog, the shuffling through papers, the yelling of a vicious mob, the anger and despair in a caller's voice. The audience has to interpret in their minds what is happening as there is no jump to a scene. What these scenes look like is entirely up to a member of the audience, and each audience member can draw a conclusion. Granted, there are grisly moments in The Guilty, and your mind may go to unpleasant places. The focus on Joe, and the focus of words to leave to the audience's imagination, isn't just to showcase a talented performance but to instead focus on the crushing power of stress and pressure on mental health.

There's an eternal mystery when we answer the phone, and that is what is exactly going on with the other side? We cannot see it but only hear it. In the case of a 911 dispatcher, the tension is only more terrifying. What is the difference between a calm, straightforward caller and a coherent caller under duress? What is happening between the shouts and the screams and the indecipherable noise billowing through the narrow voice piece? It is that sheer fear of the unknown and the unknown actively happening that strikes Dispatchers the hardest. There is no refuge to help. To break free of the office and Superman oneself to the scene of the emergency, all in an effort to help, but all one can do is listen, relay information, and guide the necessary resources to the emergency. It creates a feeling of both helplessness and a vain sensation of hope. There is almost nothing one can do but get information, relay it to the responding agencies, and ensure that the caller remains as calm as possible. Throughout the movie, you see the breakdown of mental capacity in Joe. He becomes erratic, angry, hostile even. For the callers, particularly the central call with the abducted woman, there are changes in words and tone that indicate the evolving despair. In the case of The Guilty, it is an act of fiction, but for 911 Dispatchers across the country and even around the world, the toll it takes is high and mostly kept under the radar. When speaking with Brian Truitt of USA Today about The Guilty, director Antoine Fuqua says many words, reflecting on his experience. He shot the film over 11 days from a van due to the Coronavirus Pandemic, taking every precaution to reduce the risk of infection. Of the various layers and themes the movie offers, the biggest is the theme of mental health and the immense strain the first responder is under in responding to emergencies. When commenting on The Guilty, "Things we don't know, things we don't normally talk about, that's prevalent everywhere. The issue of how we help people, particularly mentally, is a lot of what this movie is about.” (USA Today)

Antoine Fuqua is correct in this statement, and this is a problem not just occurring with large communities or 911 dispatchers but the entire Emergency Response System, from firefighters to Police to EMS. The Washington Post reports as of August of 2021, 89 Law Enforcement Officers have died by suicide, including those that took their own lives following The Insurrection at The Capitol on January 6th of this year. In an article from WKYT, the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology finds nearly 20% of firefighters and paramedics will develop PTSD in their careers. Largely and regrettably, despite the vast resources of media, much of this information is ignored and dismissed, and those mentally suffering are left to scrounge for resources on their own.

Taking all this research into account, it makes the events of The Guilty feel too real, perhaps a little too close to home. Staying out of spoiler territory, the movie does create visions of truly difficult scenes and moments, from a suicide attempt to the crying of a child covered in blood. It gets me thinking that if this is simply a movie and a work of fiction, the reality is far, far worse. I'm sure that those reading this can recall a memory that doesn't go away, no matter how hard one tries to walk away from such a horrible moment. Mental Health for first responders has especially become an imperative discussion, especially given the circumstances of events that have occurred since March of 2020. If there is a silver lining to the fire and chaos since the COVID-19 pandemic began, the topic of Mental Health has now been blown open to the tip of discussion. Now, major entities have started to move the wheel towards addressing the problem, albeit very slowly. In Virginia, a fire department has opened up a mental health unit specifically to help firefighters. A police department is putting its strength into its Officer Wellness and Support Division to address the mental health challenges of police officers. In Idaho, a crisis line specific to first responders has opened for 24/7 use. And, of course, if you are reading this, you are already more than familiar with Stack Up's mission of using video games and gaming communities to address mental illness and our Overwatch Program. However, whether you have served or not, the service is open to everyone, civilians included.

Furthermore, we welcome our brothers, sisters, and non-binary companions in the LGBTQIA community. Change is happening. It should have happened years ago, but perhaps now, there is a movement toward answers and, hopefully, solutions to the problems and challenges of mental health.

The Guilty isn't a definitive statement regarding mental health for first responders, and for seasoned professionals, they'll be quick to point out loopholes and inaccuracies, such as why Joe is carrying a loaded weapon at his hip inside a 911 dispatcher's office when he has been placed there following an incident on patrol. But in movies and art, the creator wants to express something, and here, Antoine and the cast and crew express a message worth thinking and talking about. Mental Health is an imperative mission, an essential goal to creating a better, more sustainable world and a better future. The key to that future begins with a call.

The Guilty is streaming on Netflix.

If you are feeling mentally distressed, please visit the Stack Up Overwatch Program to contact a trained peer-to-peer support volunteer, 24/7.

If you feel like you are in crisis, please contact the National Crisis Hotline at 1-800-273-8255. If you are of the LGBTQIA community or identify as Transgender, please contact the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or text START to 678678 or Trans Lifeline at Trans Lifeline: 1-877-565-8860


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