The Film Canon: Phone Booth (2002)

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Just because you can’t make something work right now, doesn’t mean it won’t work out somewhere down the line. Such is the story behind Phone Booth‘s production. Writer Larry Cohen originally pitched the concept to famed director Alfred Hitchcock back in the 1960s. Hitchcock himself really liked the idea of having a film focused on someone stuck in a phone booth, but neither Cohen nor Hitchcock could figure out a sufficient reason to keep him stuck in the booth. The idea wouldn’t be revisited again until the late ’90s, when Cohen finally decided on a sniper preventing the main character from leaving his phone booth. If it takes someone over 30 years to come up with a single concept, but still manages to create something intense and sensational from it, I think we’re all going to be OK with our lives.

Phone Booth is a 2002 thriller directed by Joel Schumacher. Fun little fact, it was also produced by David Zucker, one of the main men responsible for the Airplane! and Naked Gun movies. (Which could explain the bits of twisted humor the film isn’t afraid to throw in every now and then.) Protagonist Stu Shepard (Colin Farrell) is a smug and pretentious New York City publicist who never gave a damn about anyone who didn’t give a damn about him. Having been lead astray from his wife Kelly (Radha Mitchell) by desires to sleep with a new woman named Pam (Katie Holmes), Stu finds himself using the last phone booth in all of New York City to make calls to Pam, instead of using his cell phone that his wife could easily track. However, this daily routine of calling Pam is interrupted one day by a lone male caller (Kiefer Sutherland) who threatens to murder Stu if he doesn’t confess his sins. When the lone gunman shoots a bouncer for trying to interrupt Stu’s conversation with him, the police forces swarm in trying to defuse the situation. Lead by Capt. Ed Ramey (Forest Whitaker), the police believe Stu to be responsible for the bouncer’s death, all the while Stu is trying to do everything he can to stay alive by being the gunman’s puppet.

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Despite being helmed by the man responsible for Batman and Robin, director Joel Schumacher actually manages to craft what could be one of the best “modern-Hitchcock” stories to date. The story isn’t overly complicated, but it’s gripping from beginning to end like many of Hitchcock’s own works. The fact that he was originally interested in this idea is no surprise at all, as the narrative plays much to his well-known style. Take Hitchcock’s own Rope for example. All it’s really about is two people killing a man and trying to get away with it in plain sight. That entire film also takes place in a single room, with no other changes in location throughout the entire run time. Sound familiar? Phone Booth plays around with the same formula, keeping Farrell’s character stuck in that booth for 98 percent of the run time. Hitchcock’s tales are known to be like little stories of warnings to the audience against greed (Psycho) or listening to the wrong type of people (Strangers on a Train), and Phone Booth has exactly the same kind of reflection upon its audience: Don’t cheat or you just might get held hostage over it.

Everyone here is at the peak of their talent. Despite Stu Shepard being an all around jackass in the beginning, with the intrusion of Sutherland’s gunman character, we begin to realize that even a gigantic dirtbag’s heart can be brought back from corruption. Farrell owns the role in all aspects of the character’s development, playing off the uncaring publicist facade with ease and then turning it around so well when we see Shepard’s ultimate destruction and rebirth. Sutherland’s lone gunman role may not be especially deep, but it fills the part of “wicked savior” so well that I could easily call it one of his best performances in his whole career. With a film mostly focused on two individuals, the producers behind Phone Booth needed to make sure they found two actors who could work incredibly well together, and they managed to fill that need with Farrell and Sutherland with absolute serenity. The way they bounce off of each other — from Stu’s desperation and the gunman’s sinister laughs — makes every twist and turn spine chilling.

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What makes Phone Booth such a noteworthy thriller is the success in its simplicity. Stu’s character is the only one we really need to learn about and develop with, why he’s being held hostage and what he’s committed over the course of his career. We see the depths he’s willing to go to to try to out maneuver his captor, as the intelligence behind his tough guy charade is what will decide if he’s able to get out of his situation. Maybe some people would have liked a broader reason as to why the sniper had decided to take on a role of forcing bad people to change, but I believe that would only hurt the film’s energy and thrills. Phone Booth may be a mild cautionary tale at its roots, but what makes its simplicity a necessity is how engaging its dilemma really is. If you haven’t given this excellent thriller a shot, I highly recommend you hunker down and watch it on a weekend. If you enjoy yourself a good ol’ Hitchcock-esque cinematic treat, you definitely won’t go wrong here.

​Donald Strohman is a Pennsylvania State University film graduate currently residing in Metro Atlanta, Georgia. Before being a part of The Young Folks team, he contributed to GameDeck and the satire website The Black Sheep. He also writes for the game journalism site GameSkinny. When he's not trying to fulfill his life long dream of becoming the "Hash Slinging Slasher", Donald enjoys watching movies, playing video games, and writing; sometimes all at once.