Director: Joel Schumacher
Cast: Colin Farrell, Forest Whitaker, Radha Mitchell, Katie Holmes, Kiefer Sutherland
MPAA Rating: (for pervasive language and some violence)
Running Time: 1:21
Release Date: 4/4/03
Review by Mark Dujsik
Phone Booth is intense for about eighty percent of its short and sweet hour and twenty minute length. It's also flawed, but the pacing and structure act as an effective concealer for the film's blemishes. Using a deceptively simple setup, screenwriter Larry Cohen (working off a short student film), director Joel Schumacher (reminding us that, yes, he can direct a solid thriller), and editor Mark Stevens (most definitely the unsung hero of this venture) give us an experiment in tension that pays off admirably. The set up is misleading, not because there's some sort of hidden depth to the material, but because of the complex mechanics behind a project like this. The film takes place primarily in and around a Manhattan phone booth with time ticking away almost naturally. Just think of the logistical nightmare this presents: the control of extras, the maintenance of continuity in regards to exterior lighting, etc. I'm not at all surprised to learn that the film was shot in just over ten days; any more time would probably just worsen the headaches.
The movie starts off with an awkward voice-over narration, which gives us information about the phone-using habits of New Yorkers. It's unnecessary because the opening sequence visually gives us the sense of humanity at the mercy of technology. Then it moves into fable territory to give a brief history of the titular phone booth, which will house one last occupant. That man's name is Stu Shepard (Colin Farrell), a wheeling and dealing, smooth-talking publicist. We first meet him, walking down Times Square and swiftly doing business over an array of cell phones and in person. Stu goes to the phone booth everyday to call Pam (Katie Holmes), an actress whom he tells he is helping. After making his call today, the phone rings, he picks it up, and a voice (Kiefer Sutherland) on the other end of the line begins to play with Stu's secrets. He knows about his wife Kelly (Radha Mitchell) and wants Stu to confess his obsession with Pamela and other women to her. The situation is escalated when the caller reveals that he is responsible for the murders of two other people, has a sniper rifle aimed at Stu, and will kill him if he hangs up or doesn't follow his rules.
Schumacher establishes the film's stylistic tendencies fairly early on. The most noticeable choice is the use of split screen, a cinematic device that automatically calls attention to itself. After its rough introduction in the opening minutes, it becomes surprisingly unobtrusive, almost as though it's a given to the nature of the material. Of course it should be there, we begin to subconsciously think; the movie wouldn't work without it. There's a real sense of urgency present here, and part of it must be because of incredibly short shooting schedule. There are a few apparent line flubs, but they somehow work. Considering the gravity of the situation, shouldn't these people be at a loss of what to say at times? The film works, though, primarily because of pacing, and Schumacher and Stevens have created a dramatic rhythm that plays out like one, extended climax from the moment the caller reveals his plan. The script's legitimate climax, ironically, comes pretty indiscernibly; it's just part of the whole.
The script is flawed when it deviates from the central conflict. Once the caller proves his threat by shooting a man who begins to attack Stu, the cops come into play, and naturally, they assume Stu is responsible for the man's death. Here we're introduced to Captain Ramey played by Forest Whitaker. Whitaker has an innate gift of adding depth to a performance simply because of his appearance, but Cohen's script tries to do the same. Too much is done to make Ramey into something, but because there's limited time to do so, the revelation of his marital, personal, and professional problems is clumsy and ultimately unnecessary. While Stu and the caller play a game of words and deceit, we also get scenes of the police slowly discovering the reality behind the scenario. The film would have played better had they stayed in the background and only come forward during interactions with Stu. The fact that we know Ramey doubts Stu's involvement in the shooting and that his wife doesn't seem to care too much lessens the tension. The main struggle, though, is so strong that it's easy to forgive the script its faults.
For all its technical successes, Phone Booth couldn't work without two commanding performances at its center, and fortunately, it has them a few times over. Colin Farrell gives a primal performance that is all about fear and watching a man fall apart. Farrell's success makes me happy; this is an actor who has made (mostly) smart choices to get where he's at and has displayed an extensive range that makes me think he'll be around for a while. His work here is exceptional. The other performance is less obvious, but without it, the film would fail. Kiefer Sutherland's distinct voice and expressive delivery add humor and weight to what is essentially a plot device. And that's what the film basically comes down to: two men—one with everything to lose, the other with nothing to lose. It's great conflict, pure and simple.
Note: The film was originally intended for release in late 2002 but was delayed because of the sniper attacks in the Washington, D.C. area at the time. It makes perfect sense to me, since it is not an isolated episode for the film's antagonist. The film is neither more relevant nor more repellant because of reality.
Copyright © 2003 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.