September 18, 2021

SHOWBUZZDAILY Toronto Film Festival Reviews: “The Guilty,” “Lakewood” & “The Starling”


THE GUILTY (Netflix – Oct. 1):  One way to cope with the challenges and costs of movie production during Covid is to limit the number of actors who have to be in front of the camera.  That’s tough for a thriller, but two Festival movies this year chose the old Sorry, Wrong Number mode where the action is almost entirely told through a single individual who’s dealing with everyone else over the phone.  Antoine Fuqua’s The Guilty, written by True Detective creator Nic Pizzolatto from a previous Danish movie, uses the natural fulcrum of a 911 operator.  In this case, Joe Baylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) takes a call from a young woman (voiced by Riley Keough) who says she’s been abducted, and with increasing desperation, he tries to trace her location while linking her disappearance to another crime.  Meanwhile, Joe has his own problems, as we come to learn that he’s a street cop on leave from active duty because of allegations brought against him, with his hearing scheduled for the next day.  Fuqua, Pizzolatto and editor Jason Ballantine orchestrate the mounting tension well through the 90-minute running time, and Gyllenhaal has the necessary intensity to hold everything together almost entirely while sitting at a desk and staring off-camera.  There’s also a vocal cast that would be considered A-list in an ordinary movie:  apart from Keough, Peter Sarsgaard, Paul Dano, Ethan Hawke and Da’Vine Joy Randolph are among those who appear.  There are clever reverses as Joe tries to untangle what’s going on with the missing woman and makes mistakes along the way.  However, the attempt to combine the case with Joe’s personal situation and thus with bigger issues about policing proves to be a step too far for the script, which has already pushed credibility to the breaking point several times, and the climax rings as artificial and overwrought.  There’s still some taut fun to be had here, at least for a while, in a project that’s perfectly scaled for the streaming screen.

LAKEWOOD (no distrib):  The first half of the festival’s other on-the-phone thriller packs more of an emotional punch than The Guilty, because from the start the crisis is more personal for its protagonist.  The set-up in Philip Noyce’s Lakewood, from a script by Chris Sparling, has Amy (Naomi Watts) going off for a long run in the woods around her Marin County home.  As she heads deeper and deeper along the jogging paths and off the main roads, she at first fields routine annoyances on her cell, arranging to pick up her parents’ car from the shop and the like.  Abruptly, though, she’s notified of dangerous trouble at her son’s high school.  Noyce has the advantage over Antoine Fuqua and The Guilty in that Amy is isolated but not at a desk, so John Brawley’s camera is able to swoop and probe through the woods imprisoning her as she grows increasingly frantic, attempting to find out what’s going on and track down her son’s location.  Unfortunately, the practical screenwriting downside of Amy’s position is that once she understands the situation, it would be difficult to give her a more prominent place in the narrative than mere worrying.  Despite the efforts of Noyce and editor Lee Haugen to keep the tension mounting for the film’s tight 84 minutes, Sparling’s script becomes contrived and in the end flat-out ridiculous as Amy turns Nancy Drew and becomes the focal point of the entire emergency as she runs through the woods.  (She also has the best cell reception imaginable.)  Watts doesn’t let the nonsense of the screenplay keep her from offering an accomplished, emotionally fresh performance, but she can only do so much, and Lakewood‘s own journey through the woods ends up smashing headfirst into a tree.

THE STARLING (Netflix – Sept. 24):  Last year’s Toronto Film Festival gave us Penguin Bloom, in which a magpie guided Naomi Watts out of her trauma, and someone at the Festival must find that theme attractive, because this year, Theodore Melfi’s The Starling offers a variation on the same plot.  This time the suffering woman is Lilly (Melissa McCarthy), whose infant daughter died a year earlier, and whose husband Jack (Chris O’Dowd) then had a breakdown that put him into a therapeutic facility, placing even more of a burden on her.  Lilly is at a loss, unable to move forward, when her attempts at gardening are foiled by a territorial starling.  Will the feisty little starling eventually carry her past her grief?  You bet.  Screenwriter Matt Harris has mostly been an unscripted TV producer, and if there was a way to tell this story without being cloying and predictable, he didn’t find it.  One particularly silly strand of the story has Lilly going to a therapist who’s now working as a vet (Kevin Kline) due to his own past, and who is thus able, so to speak, to cure two birds using one stone.  None of the ridiculousness of The Starling is the fault of the actors, whose performances treat the material as though it’s worth the effort, and Melfi’s gamble in casting comic actors for roles that are essentially serious pays off for the most part.  (In the woman vs bird scenes, McCarthy can’t help herself from going a bit too big.)  The Starling was clearly made with the best intentions, and there are entertaining moments, especially when McCarthy and Kline share the screen, but this bird rarely takes flight.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."