2003, 20th Century Fox. Directed by Joel Schumacher. Colin Farrell, Kiefer Sutherland, Forest Whitaker, Radha Mitchell, Katie Holmes.
Decent Films Ratings
Content advisory: Constant obscenity and recurring sexual references; profanity and crude language; scenes set against a backdrop of sex shops; scenes involving characters dressed as and identified as prostitutes; some violence; pervasive deadly menace.
By Steven D. Greydanus
Phone Booth takes the formula of Die Hard and Speed, in which the protagonist is trapped in a confined space by a wily psychopath with whom he communicates only by phone (or walkie-talkie), to its narrowest physical dimensions yet. Bruce Willis had his skyscraper and Keanu his bus, but Colin Farrell is stuck in an old-fashioned Manhattan phone booth talking to a hidden sniper who threatens to shoot him if he hangs up. Talk about being in a tight spot.
A phone booth obviously doesn’t offer much room for swashbuckling action, so Phone Booth focuses on suspense and psychology. To imprison a man in a transparent box in front of the world is to invite the world to see who he really is. The phone booth becomes a kind of secular confessional in which Farrell’s antihero is forced to make a desperate examination of conscience. "Confess your sins and beg for absolution," taunts the voice on the phone (Kiefer Sutherland). He’s a sort of Mephistopholean Satan-accuser, suavely amused, ironically moralistic, possessed of far-reaching knowledge and control of the situation.
In a word, Phone Booth is an overt morality play. The opening sequence sets the tone, with a gospel quartet calling long-distance to Jesus and omniscient voiceover narration accompanying through-the-clouds divine-perspective camerawork. Phone Booth isn’t very profound, or even very plausible, and its reliance on four-letter words is excessive. But it has some interesting themes and engaging performances, and manages to be entertaining throughout its efficient 81-minute running time.
Stu (Farrell) is a slick, callow publicist who’s always playing both ends against the middle. In an amusing early sequence, Stu is a whirlwind of action, walking about Times Square switching back and forth on multiple cellphones, turning every conversation to his advantage, lying to and manipulating everyone. He’s rudely dismissive to people he has no reason to impress, and he has a fixed routine of stopping at the last real phone booth on Manhattan’s west side to have a chat with a pretty young client (Katie Holmes) that won’t show up on his cellphone bill, during which he feels obliged to slip off his wedding ring.
One day, Stu’s routine is broken as the payphone rings just as he’s hanging up, and he instinctively answers it. The voice on the other end is rich and engaging, and it doesn’t take Stu long to realize that this is no wrong number or prank call. First blustering and threatening, then apprehensive and conciliatory, Stu tries all his usual tricks to take control of the situation, but he’s way out of his league and the caller is holding all the cards.
Not only can’t Stu leave the phone booth, he can’t even tell anyone why he can’t — not the hookers or the pimp who threaten him; not the police who arrive after a shooting in which Stu is naturally suspected; and not the gathering media or crowds of onlookers, including, eventually, Stu’s wife (Radha Mitchell).
The killer-on-the-phone thing has, of course, been done before, from When a Stranger Calls to In the Line of Fire to Scream. In Phone Booth, the caller is too generic to be very creepy or even interesting in his own right. He’s got a schtick — like the killer in Seven, he’s out to punish the wicked — and a mocking sense of humor, but none of the personality that John Malkovich had in Line of Fire. He’s too invulnerable, too unshakeable. Even Hannibal Lecter could be thrown off-balance more easily than this guy. Nor does the film even gesture in the direction of a motive. (It doesn’t help that the voice doesn’t sound like a voice on the phone, but like a studio-recorded celebrity voiceover. Nor does Sutherland’s velvety, note-perfect delivery improve matters.)
The caller is more a plot device than a character; he exists not for his own sake, but as a means of putting Stu under the microscope. Yet in that capacity he gets the job done. Attacking Stu’s rudeness and dishonesty, the caller insists on scrupulous honesty from Stu toward him. Brushing aside Stu’s protestations of de facto marital fidelity, he confronts Stu with the import of his lies and his fantasies, bringing home the moral violation of a lustful gaze by turning his own sights on Stu’s wife and telling him all about it.
It isn’t every day that a Hollywood thriller suggests that there’s something morally wrong with ogling and fantasizing. There’s also a Lecter-like moment in which the caller instructs Stu to ask a concerned cop on the scene (Forest Whitaker, solid as always), who has told Stu that he’s divorced, whether he "abuses himself." (I wasn’t sure anyone in Hollywood was even familiar with that term.)
Of course, it’s a psycho killer talking; yet clearly everything he says about Stu is true. The danger here is that the morally scrupulous killer would turn out to be another tiresome instance of the fanatical religious killer stereotype, but fortunately the caller ridicules this possible explanation for his behavior (along with every other possible explanation the movie proposes).
In the end, the real moral catalyst for Stu is not the caller’s harangues but the sheer threat of the sniper’s bullet. Stuart postures, weasels, plots, capitulates, explodes, and finally breaks down, but when he finally grasps that the caller may kill him no matter what he does, he is forced to face up to things about himself that he might never have recognized any other way.
In spite of all this, Phone Booth isn’t really much interested in morality or redemption. It’s basically exactly what it looks like — a high-concept thriller, overpumped by schlockmeister Joel Schumacher (Bad Company), well acted by Farrell and Whitaker, entertaining but ultimately little more.
Actually, the film is something of a historical curiosity: completed almost two years ago, before Farrell’s breakout turns in Minority Report and The Recruit but delayed for various reasons (most recently the Beltway sniper), the story allegedly goes back to a film concept by Alfred Hitchcock. Screenwriter Larry Cohen (Guilty As Sin) makes some effort to retrofit the story for the modern day, but the seams are showing: The whole phone-booth scenario was clearly conceived in the days before cellphones or even phone kiosks (consider that it’s been a quarter century since Christopher Reeve turned a quizzical eye on a modern payphone before settling for a revolving door to change into his Superman costume). Equally dated are the rows of sex shops and prostitutes on Times Square.
There are a few other minor annoyances as well, from a cheesy and unnecessary denouement to the propensity of Stu’s wife to keep on leaving the safety of a police car even after she knows there’s a sniper lurking about. Despite these drawbacks, Phone Booth generally holds together at least while you’re watching it, and it has a level of moral interest not common in movies of this sort.