New Thriller ‘The Guilty’ Explores Mental Toll of Being a 911 Dispatcher

October 7, 2021Mac Caltrider

Jake Gyllenhaal conveys the anxiety experienced by 911 dispatchers in The Guilty. Screenshot from YouTube.

Jake Gyllenhaal is a one-man show in Netflix’s new psychological thriller, The Guilty. The End of Watch actor plays Joe Baylor, a Los Angeles Police Department cop forced to work a shift as a 911 dispatcher while awaiting trial for an unspecified work incident. 

Antoine Fuqua’s dive into the high-stress world of 911 dispatchers is an anxiety-inducing remake of the 2018 Dutch film of the same name. The camera rarely leaves Gyllenhaal’s increasingly distressed face, effectively re-creating the claustrophobic call centers that dispatchers operate in for eight-hour, 12-hour, and sometimes daylong shifts. 

Gyllenhaal stars alongside Ethan Hawke, Riley Keough, and Peter Sarsgaard, though he’s the only actor among them who actually appears on-screen. The entire film takes place in a call center and never strays from Baylor or his only connection to the outside world: his dispatcher headset.

High rates of post-traumatic stress and depression have resulted in a nationwide shortage of emergency dispatchers. Screenshot from YouTube.

A single call sends Baylor on an emotional journey to try to save a kidnapped woman and her young children. As he extracts more details from broken conversations with the caller, Baylor pieces clues together to reveal a situation much more complicated than it first seemed. The fictional plot is a slightly enhanced version of the original film’s, but it becomes worthwhile for its rare glimpse into the real emotional toll that answering calls takes on dispatchers. 

Because dispatchers do not physically respond to the scenes of emergencies, they’re often left out of the umbrella of first responders. Their role in helping those in need is largely overlooked, despite the fact that the men and women answering phones are very literally the first to respond. Alarming rates of post-traumatic stress and depression among dispatchers have been linked to their high-stress workloads.

The Guilty makes it uncomfortably clear how symptoms of these conditions have the potential to impair dispatchers’ abilities to perform their jobs effectively. 

In a single shift at a 911 call center, a dispatcher may handle calls for serious emergencies, including sudden deaths, suicides, and violent domestic disputes. At times, a dispatcher’s voice is the last one a person hears before dying. These kinds of traumas combined with high levels of stress have led to an unnerving shortage of dispatchers nationwide.

Because Gyllenhaal has the chops to pull off a two-hour ride with nothing but close-ups of his face, The Guilty works. As he sweats and squirms over the fate of the person on the other end of the line, Gyllenhaal’s performance provides a window into the world of emergency dispatchers and why those who respond to an average of 2,400 calls per dispatcher annually experience such high rates of burnout

The Guilty gives emergency dispatchers, who are frequently overlooked in the world of first responders, a poignant and thought-provoking treatment. 

Read Next: Most Florida First Responders Will Get $1000 COVID Bonus, But 911 Dispatchers Won’t

Mac Caltrider
Mac Caltrider

Mac Caltrider is a senior staff writer for Coffee or Die Magazine. He served in the US Marine Corps and is a former police officer. Caltrider earned his bachelor’s degree in history and now reads anything he can get his hands on. He is also the creator of Pipes & Pages, a site intended to increase readership among enlisted troops. Caltrider spends most of his time reading, writing, and waging a one-man war against premature hair loss.

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