Master horror director Alfred Hitchcock had a theory that continues to apply to thrillers even today, he theorized that if you take a tense moment and stretch it out as long as possible you can keep the audience on the edge of their seat, biting their nails and sweating at the thought of an oncoming jolt, that if you stretch it long, it will have more of a lasting effect on the audience than if you hit them with one instant jolt which they will inevitably forget. Many of today’s horror and thrillers prefer to use the latter which, despite always getting a reaction, isn’t always effective, “Phone Booth” uses Hitchcock’s method in the most purest sense and gives a fond remembrance of the days when a thriller actually used its title “Thrill”, and what “Phone Booth” does is surely thrill in rare form.
An odd thing occurred while watching this, something that hadn’t happened in a while, I was actually scared and surprisingly I realized I was tense. Director Joel Schumacher creates a tight knit, masterfully edited thriller that is effective and satisfying and very entertaining. The picture in picture shots of people talking on the phone only increases the class of this film more and more, and is truly one of the more original picture methods I’ve seen in recent years. Stu Shephard is a big shot, a somewhat weasly but confident publicist who struts through New York City with his lackeys following as he sets up deals with Hollywood agents and scoffs with a pompous demeanor. When he stops at a phone booth to make a call, he receives one from a mysterious caller who threatens to shoot him down with a sniper rifle if he leaves the booth. After his confusion and humor of the situation begin to wear thin he realizes it’s not a joke when a man is shot down in front of him, much to his horror.
The caller on the other end knows everything about him, and now a game of cat and mouse ensue between the two as both attempt to outwit each other, but will Stu make it out alive, or will he be another victim to the terrifying stalker on the other end? I always say you can always tell if you’re going to love or hate a film by the first ten minutes, and as I quickly became involved in the film as it grabbed me with a creepy opening narrative resembling Rod Serling in a long episode of “Twilight Zone”, and it’s random but haunting images of satellites orbiting Earth and the blank images of people on cell phones and their reliance on it, no one would ever assume it would become a weapon. I’m sure the un-original Hollywood executives scoffed at the idea of an entire movie taking place in one phone booth, hell even I scoffed and furrowed a brow in skepticism at the concept and found it a bit far-fetched, but alas I was proven wrong. It’s funny I make the analogy to Hitchcock when this concept was first proposed to him long ago and then made today.
Can you imagine if Hitchcock made this film? Wow. Anyway I digress, be warned though, there is no shoot-outs, thankfully no high speed car chases, the hero doesn’t fight to the death with the villain in the end, and there’s no simple resolution, it’s comprised in one place, it’s quiet, it’s low-key but beyond it all it’s a horrifying tale and commentary as to the questionable limits of privacy we really have over the phone. What if there’s someone on the other end we’re not aware of listening in on our conversations? What if we phrase a sentence wrong and automatically trigger some sort of security alert? This affirms to people two things: 1. We depend too much on phones and technology, and 2. Complete privacy is an illusion, smoke and mirrors. There’s always someone listening, and sometimes the wrong person listens in. I like Colin Farrell, he’s a great actor and you wouldn’t know it with his groups of numerous big budget fluff films released over the course of four years, but this man can act and he proves it in “Phone Booth”.
With his change in personality and demeanor from the start of the film as a cocky cheap suit wearing jerk to being reduced to a nimble, sad and pathetic man towards the end, Colin Farrell steals every scene he’s in, and sadly makes all the other stars dim in comparison to his performance. Farrell gives an incredible performance as Stu Shephard a character that is so layered and rich in personality that it would be hard to imagine anyone else in his place. Whether or not he’s starring in box-office fluff like “Daredevil” and “SWAT” or in rich films like this, he steals every scene he’s in and becomes any role he takes. He’s magnetic and in this film he’s an average man forced into a large horrifying situation that he can’t control regardless of how much he tries to bargain and slither his way out of it. His transformation within the progression of the story is phenomenal and we see Farrell at the height of his talent. Particularly in one great scene where his character Stu is forced to confess everything about himself to the world, to his wife, and to the press. While watching I was stunned that there are actually good actors still in Hollywood, my how there’s still hope yet. I found a few off-notes during the story that didn’t sit with me; the prostitutes in the film though comical are a bit over the top and somewhat took much attention away from the levity of the situation and became very distracting the louder and more forceful they got, this could have been better had they not been included.
Katie Holmes has never looked more adorable before and she glimmers with beauty during this, but alas, has little to do in this. She’s mostly a below supporting character having very few lines and when she does have lines she simply reacts with one line responses that didn’t fit. Her character could have been played by anyone, she’s drowned out by the better actors and larger roles and it’s a shame to waste her in this film. The climax of the film is predictable and cliché; it’s something we’ve seen in a million thrillers of this class and I wasn’t surprised, ultimately I was disappointed and felt there could have been a more original spin to an original film. Along with Farrell in the lead there are some great supporting characters including Forrest Whitaker (Ghost Dog, Panic Room) who plays Captain Ramey a low-grade officer who’s forced to take control of the high intensity situation and keep anyone from being killed.
He gives low-key and subdued performance, something he’s very adept to and he works off well with Farrell and the two have chemistry, Radha Mitchell who I best know as the ass-kicking captain in “Pitch Black” has a supporting role as Stu’s wife Kelly who reacts well to the chaotic situation and helps increase the emotions. Last but far, far from least there’s Keifer Sutherland who plays the raspy voiced caller who stalks Farrell’s character. Yes sir (or madam), this is one of the main men in Hollywood who perfected the villain role and perfected it well in films like “Lost Boys”, “Highway”, and (my favorite) “Eye for an Eye” and he pulls out all the stops in this film. From his creepy calm deep voice to his villainous cackle to his emotional threats that would send a shiver down anyone’s back, he empowers this film and is at the peak of his perfection, bravo dude, bravo, but don’t call me, I’ll call you. Truly a thriller that deserves the title of the genre it belongs to, far from bland, far from commercial, and far from cliché. Despite some reservations this is a taut, tension filled, entertaining, and creepy thriller with a great cast who pull in excellent performances. Hey Schumacher after watching this maybe I’ll forgive you for “Batman and Robin”… maybe.