“Isn’t it funny? You hear a phone ring and it could be anybody. But a ringing phone has to be answered, doesn’t it?” This particular line, when used outside of the context of the movie, appears to be nothing more than a rudimentary observation of a typical human inclination. However, this very same line when spoken by actor Keifer Sutherland, with his distinctly recognizable voice that has instilled fear into many a terrorist on TV’s “24”, takes on a creepy and ominous tone. With this one line of dialogue the movie, “Phone Booth”, quickly kicks into high-gear and embarks upon a taut, tense thrill ride that will no doubt leave most audience members questioning whether or not they will answer a ringing public phone ever again.
“Phone Booth” focuses on one really bad day in the life of publicist Stu Shepard (Colin Farrell) as his day goes from average to terrifying with one phone call. On the other end of the line is a deadly accurate sniper with a high-powered rifle aimed right at Stu. If Stu hopes to make it out of this ordeal alive he must do exactly what the caller dictates; if not, then his next breath could be his last.
Making a movie where your main character is forced to spend the better part of 90 minutes stuck in essentially one spot would seem to not only be a hard sell to the actor or actress playing the role, but also to the director, supporting cast members, and any potential studio looking at bankrolling and/or distributing the film. I mean, seriously how can this premise actually sustain an audiences interest for that long, while remaining believable and on top of that, maintaining a high level of suspense? I suppose one could say that making a movie about a man alone on a deserted island with a volleyball for a companion is just as hard, if not harder to sell. Yet, that particular movie (“Cast Away” for those that either don’t recall or weren’t aware) actually did well with both critics and audiences, proving that this type of film can work when done properly. All I can say is that clearly director Joel Schumacher (“A Time to Kill”), along with his cast, crew, and screenwriter, knew precisely what they were doing, thus creating an incredibly intense movie experience centered around one of the most mundane locations known to man… a phone booth.
Written by Larry Cohen, a writer who may have an affinity for all things phone related (another movie he wrote was titled “Cellular”), the story takes an interesting, albeit potentially boring and problematic, concept that could have been riddled with clichés and unoriginality, and turns it into a sleek, inventive, fast-paced thriller. One particular aspect I enjoyed about this film’s story is that it gives the audience enough of a taste of what Stu is like as a man prior to his ordeal, and then cleverly reveals more character details and flaws throughout the phone conversations. This method could have made the additional character development feel wedged into the story as an obvious means of exposition that would cause the pace to slow down; however, Cohen has weaved the details throughout the film in a way that never feels forced or unnatural within the context of the various phone calls.
Another aspect of the story that worked really well (and increased the tension for the audience), was the realism inherent in the story. The fact that the bulk of the movie takes place within such an ordinary and mundane setting, like a phone booth, makes what is occurring all the more frightening because it actually could happen to one us. The best scares movies have ever given to audiences almost always revolve around events and/or settings that most of us either encounter or potentially could in our normal day-to-day lives. It is the familiarity of the surroundings and the realistic nature of the threat in “Phone Booth” that amplifies our dread to a much greater degree than anything most horror films can ever hope to achieve.
Headlining this relatively small primary cast of characters is the ever-capable actor Colin Farrell (“American Outlaws”). Colin has proven over the course of several films during his relatively short career that he is an extremely talented actor and one that can hold his own with the biggest stars in the business. To my knowledge, “Phone Booth” is the first movie in which Colin must carry the lion’s share of the film’s workload alone. As with any actor or actress, a film such as this will test just how skilled an individual they truly are. With Colin’s stellar performance in this movie he easily proves his worth to not only audiences, but critics as well.
Alongside Colin in the supporting roles for the film are actors Forest Whitaker (“Phenomenon”) and Keifer Sutherland (TV’s “24”). Forest Whitaker brings more depth and believability to his character than the typical one-dimensional take the script seemed to provide. It is Whitaker’s warmth that exudes from the character’s initial conversations in the movie that makes him more relatable and balances out the otherwise cold and unforgiving nature of the rest of the police force depicted in the film.
Keifer Sutherland delivers one of the most chilling villainous portrayals in modern cinema, at least in my opinion. What’s most impressive about this performance is that it was acted predominantly through voice-over or in this case, phone calls. Surprisingly, this approach for showcasing the film’s main antagonist didn’t weaken the portrayal one bit. It is quite an achievement for an actor to make his presence feared throughout an entire movie without being seen for a majority of the duration. Keifer’s gruff and menacing voice work in this film is unsettling enough, but his character’s nonchalant approach to what he’s doing is perhaps the most terrifying of all. Nothing is more disturbing than a villain that believes he or she is justified in whatever actions they may take, and Keifer’s performance absolutely personifies that frame of mind.
Lastly, actresses Radha Mitchell (“Man on Fire”) and Katie Holmes (“Batman Begins”) are left with little more to do than just look good on camera and provide some added tension to a couple of moments within the film. Between the two, Radha’s character of Kelly, Stu’s wife, is given a few brief moments of development and importance within the film; however, even then her scenes really didn’t add all that much to the proceedings. Truth be told, I thought both actresses’ characters, or at least Katie’s character of Pam, could have been left out of the story and only be referred to in the conversations without sacrificing any of the intensity or excitement. In the end, both roles felt like nothing more than afterthoughts within the script.
With a screenplay rife with tension, solid performances from the cast especially star Colin Farrell, and a real world setting that makes the whole ordeal all the more startling to the audience; “Phone Booth” is an excellent thriller that will have you on the edge of your seat from start to finish.
“Phone Booth” is rated R for pervasive language, brief violence, and sexual references.