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Non-Review Review: Phone Booth

Phone Booth is proof that the high-concept thriller isn’t quite dead yet. A concept that had been floating around Hollywood for decades (with the master of suspense himself, Alfred Hitchcock, lined up to direct at one point), it seemed that – with the decline of the phone booth and the rise of mobile phones – perhaps the window in which to tell the tale might be closing. Of all the directors to bring the tale to the screen, I don’t think I ever would have expected Joel Schumacher to make one of the most intense and superbly intimate little thrillers ever written to the screen.

There's a lot on the line...

I think part of the appeal of Phone Booth is the fact that it knows how slight a tale it is. It has a single golden idea – the story of a man trapped inside a New York phone booth – but it’s also keenly aware of the limitations of the idea. It knows that you can easily stretch the idea too far, or that you could strain credibility too far. The movie runs less than an hour and twenty minutes long, and flies by, shorter than a Woody Allen comedy. And, truth be told, I think it’s the stronger for its brevity. We see our lead get into the phone booth, we watch the psychological game of wits, and the movie resolves itself rather than simply spinning its wheels or adding hackneyed plot developments in order to keep it going.

It’s that intimacy that serves the story well. With the exception of a few phone conversations and an introduction in Times Square, the film is confined to a quiet street corner, filmed on what must be the only street in Los Angeles that could double for Manhattan (although some of the long shots do undermine the effect, with a shallow pool of skyscrapers to be seen). We spend a lot of time with our protagonist, Stu, and the film serves as a relatively tight little story charting the publicists interactions with the two women in his life, a police negotiator, a pimp and his prostitutes, and – of course – the mysterious voice on the other end of the phone.

A mad man with a box...

Apparently the movie has been adapted as a play in Japan, and you can see how it might fit that format relatively well. Schumacher does his best to make sure we’re aware of the scale of things – with police cars and police snipers, and tourist with video cameras – but the real meat of the film is in watching Stu interact with the people he’s wronged and those who are trying to help him (or kill him). The movie might build itself around the gimmick of a caller trapped inside a phone booth, but it’s also a character study, with Stu supposedly “guilty of inhumanity to your fellow man.” (That said, it does feel strange that the caller on the other end of line seems to group him with pedophiles and corrupt white collar criminals, but I digress.)

The phone booth is a confessional, where Stu can confess his sins and be absolved. The ominous voice on the other end of the line is God, or some equivalent, striking down with seemingly random angry and vengeance for relatively minor moral transgressions, in the hope of driving the long-lost Stu back towards the light. Or, perhaps, that’s simply how the shooter sees it – a voice and a force Stu can’t see, read, or predict, and who the publicist futilely attempts to bargain with. “You don’t have to thank me,” Stu’s newest friend remarks, “nobody does.” This is a character who seems acutely aware of every little detail, and who doesn’t punish for crimes but for “sins.” I have to confess a fondness for that reading of the film.

It'll grab you...

The movie is carried by superb performances. I honestly believe that this may represent Colin Farrell’s strongest leading role – and that this was the film that proved the actor not only had the charm to carry a film centred around him, but also that he was willing to work on a film no matter what the scale. I think Farrell has done a great rehabilitation of his career following disappointments like Miami Vice or Alexander, but I still think that this film stands as the best illustration of his superb talent.

That said, Farrell is surrounded by more-than-capable supporting  players. I’ve always felt that Kiefer Sutherland’s voice was his defining trait, a weirdly haunting velvet that can imbue even the most awkward or ham-fisted lines with a sense of pathos and urgency. So the role of the film’s mysterious antagonist is perfectly suited to the actor, who is having great fun with a wonderfully written script. Even today, when I hear a hero or villain cock a gun in a movie, I remember the character’s clever observation, “Now doesn’t that just torque your jaws? I love that. You know like in the movies just as the good guy is about to kill the bad guy, he cocks his gun. Now why didn’t he have it cocked? Because that sound is scary. It’s cool, isn’t it?”

Hang on in there...

There are other moments, where the killer fakes a mental breakdown, or recalls his time in Vietnam, that demonstrate a keen awareness of the sorts of tropes that movies so frequently play with in order to grant their villains some hint of depth. It’s to the script’s credit that it rejects these notions, and it makes the threat seem all the stranger and unknowable – this guy isn’t “a walking cliché” like so many others, he’s a random variable that we can’t get a read on. The movie doesn’t try to give him too much depth or complexity by revealing his back story. Instead it suggests that somehow the character is beyond that.

Forrest Whitaker does good work here as a negotiator, and Radha Mitchell and Katie Holmes are grand as the women in Stu’s life. I think, though, Schumacher deserves a huge amount of credit for pulling something like this off – it’s a movie that could easily have misfired so badly, and instead he executed it with a confident skill. I think that this was the point in the director’s career when I managed to forgive him for Batman & Robin. And that took some doing.

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3 Responses

  1. Wow, praise for a Joel Schumacher film? You don’t hear that every day. I haven’t seen this but always been curious about it. Might give it a rent now, thanks Darren.

    • It’s probably his best film. But I like a lot of Schumacher, despite his (very obvious) faults. For every Phantom of the Opera, there’s a Lost Boys. And I’d argue even A Time to Kill (though heavy-handed) is a decent film with killer performances.

  2. It’s definitely a great little movie.

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