Film Review - Phone Booth (2002)
What would happen if whilst walking along the street one day a telephone rang in a phone booth? Would you answer it? What if the man on the other end of the line knew who you were and had some kind of a hold on you? Might you find yourself hooked like a fish on the line because of that hold? Powerless to escape, powerless to defend against the demands of the caller, powerless even to tell anyone of the dilemmas which face you? While city life goes on around you, blissfully ignorant of your plight, might you find yourself being dragged at the whim of the caller into your own personal nightmare? That is exactly the scenario which this film presents.
'Phone Booth' is a film with an original style, a study of isolation in a crowd, and a study of mental anguish as the world of a cocky young man falls apart at the end of a phone line.
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WHAT'S THE STORY ?
Stu Shepherd is a fast talking, fast moving publicist whose only mission in life is to make the fastest buck that he can. And he’ll do it without too many scruples about who he hurts along the way. He’s the worst kind of ordinary guy - ordinary in the sense that he’s no crook, but he's deceitful and vain. And he’s also messing his wife about, regularly flirting with an actress-client, neither wife nor would-be girlfriend aware of each other. Stu really isn’t a character to feel a lot of sympathy for, and given that this is a movie, you may even wish him some violent come-uppance. But if this was real life, you wouldn’t wish him dead. The premise in this movie is that someone decides to teach him a harsh lesson - someone malevolent and psychotic.
The first time we see Stu he is doing what he does best - holding court to a fawning young disciple, instructing him in the less pleasant tricks of his trade, buttering up his clients with flattery and deceit, and preening himself. Then he dispatches his apprentice because he has a little private business to attend to; he has to make his regular phone call to Pamela, his attractive client-actress-girlfriend, and he does it from one of the last few remaining public phone booths in New York because he doesn't want his wife, Kelly, to see the number on his cell phone bill. But whilst hanging around at the booth, the phone rings. Stu answers, assuming it is Pamela on the other end. But it isn't. The 'Caller' is a mysterious stranger, yet he immediately identifies Stu by name and further reveals that he knows much information about him. And that he is watching him from one of the many nearby tower blocks. Stu' is intrigued. He is hooked by the enigmatic stranger's motives, but before he finally gets bored and hangs up, he becomes hooked by something much more disturbing - the revelation that the Caller is armed with a telescopic rifle, and it is pointed at Stu. So begins a strange psychological thriller for the modern telecommunications age.
The Caller begins to make demands of Stu', tormenting him with revelations and threats and insisting that he 'confess his sins'. Soon after, a man - not Stu - is shot by the caller as part of this malevolent game, and the police arrive in force, but still Stu is powerless to resist the anonymous stranger. He is not allowed by the Caller to tell anyone else - least of all the police - just what is going on, and the police have good reason to believe that it is Stu himself who is armed and dangerous. They know nothing of the Caller with the rifle. They are in a state of high tension and Stu's dilemma is complete - whatever he does, he risks being shot dead whether it be at the hand of the Caller, or in a hail of bullets from the police. And that seems to be just what the Caller intends.
Gradually it does become clear to police Captain Ramey that there is something very odd going on here. Just why is Stu, the supposed gunman in the phone booth, hell bent on taunting the police, his wife and others, just why isn’t he brandishing the gun he had already supposedly used on another man, and just why on Earth does he insist on continuing with his phone conversation, under such extreme duress? It’s abnormal behaviour even by demented maniac standards. But even if the police can figure out what’s going on, what can they do? It seems that someone else - probably Stu - is doomed to be shot dead in the street.
But whatever else happens, Stu Shepherd's immense and unpleasant ego is certainly going to be destroyed before this phone conversation is finished.
MAIN CAST & CHARACTERS
Paula Jai Parker
John Enos III
THE FACTS OF THE FILM
DIRECTOR : Joel Schumacher
WRITERS / SCREENPLAY :
- Larry Cohen
YEAR OF RELEASE : 2002
RUNNING TIME : 81 minutes
GENRE : Suspense / Crime
GUIDENCE : Considrable swearing, notably using the F*** word 143 times
ACADEMY AWARDS : None
ACADEMY NOMINATIONS : None
KEY CHARACTERS AND PERFORMANCES
This is very much Colin Farrell's film. Centre stage from the moment he steps on to the street, he is rarely out of vision. His character Stu Shepherd is the focus of the killer’s attention, he is the focus of the police’s attention, he is the focus of the rapidly growing crowd of spectators’ attention, and he is the focus of our attention, as the smart-arse smooth talking poseur who is slowly and surely degraded by his humiliating and terrifying ordeal. And eventually he is a broken man as he is forced to reveal to all who want to listen, the shallowness of his phony get-rich-quick lifestyle. Director Joel Schumacher describes Colin Farrell's performance as a ‘tour de force’, and certainly it is one of this actor's most accomplished roles.
Forest Whitaker plays the only other character of substance in this movie. He is the cop - the only policeman on the street who has the wit to fully appreciate something very strange is developing here. The man in the phone booth by all accounts is a gunman who won’t play ball with him, and is behaving in an increasingly irrational manner, and yet Captain Ramey begins to sense that maybe Stu isn’t the real threat here. But what can he do? Forest Whitaker executes perfectly the dilemmas of an ordinary cop trying to unravel the truth in a taut and very dangerous situation.
In the on-screen movie credits Kiefer Sutherland is given second billing. I give him third billing as he actually only appears on screen for less than two minutes and even those two minutes are shot partly in soft focus. However his voice in the role of the menacing 'Caller' is heard throughout, and his contribution is clearly a significant and important part of the movie's effectiveness. Many will feel that his ominous, sneering tone is perfect for the role.
All other members of the cast are very much bit-part players, but that is not being derogatory to them. The performances are creditable, but it is in the nature of this film that the man in the phone booth, the policeman on the street, and the antagonist on the phone are the focus of all attention.
THE TWO WOMEN IN STU'S LIFE
In the film credits (and in subtitled versions) the publicist is named as Stu Shepard. But in a fax message seen on screen, Stu's name is 'Shepherd'. This is the spelling I have used in this review.
'Phone Booth' was shot in just 12 days, including 2 days of location shooting. Four cameras were used on most shots, maximising the efficiency of the schedule, and the final decision on the most effective camera angle was taken afterwards.
The film was also shot in continuity (each scene in chronological order) and the events occur more or less in real time. Many of the reactions of extras to moments of sudden action are reasonably genuine - although obviously they knew the basic story concept they were not all informed of the precise sequence and timing of key events.
The film is set on 53rd St. New York, but was shot on 5th St. Los Angeles. Apart from the convenient proximity of the Hollywood studios, filming was in November 2000, and the weather in New York would not have been ideal. Lighting technicians had to reproduce the crowded lighting effects of New York's skyscrapers on the movie set.
The basic concept of a film almost entirely shot in one tiny claustrophobic setting - namely a phone booth - had been originally suggested by screenwriter Larry Cohen to the great Alfred Hitchcock 40 years before. Hitchcock, as well as being the acknowledged 'Master of Suspense' also liked to innovate and experiment, and more than once had limited his players to a single set. Apparently Hitchcock had been interested, but a plausible reason for restricting the lead character to the length of a telephone line eluded both men at the time. If it had gone ahead, one wonders how the movie would have been filmed under Hitchcock's direction.
Larry Cohen also wrote the film 'Cellular' in which the lead character is also tied to a phone, albeit a mobile phone. There are clear similarities between the two movies.
Jim Carrey, Mel Gibson and Will Smith had all been considered for starring roles at various times.
Final release of 'Phone Booth' was delayed by 5 months due to a spate of sniper shootings in Maryland and Virginia and in Washington D.C in November 2002.
There’s so little change of action or change of setting in this movie, it’s quite hard to pick a favourite scene. Probably the key scene occurs when Stu Shepherd finally breaks down and confesses to all and sundry about his shallow lifestyle. Perhaps he reveals even more than the Caller demands, but ultimately it becomes a cathartic moment. Stu may have become an emotional wreck but in so doing he has cleared his conscience, he has broken out of his world of lies, and he has maybe placed his relationship with his wife on a sounder foundation for the future (if only he can survive the present).
Perhaps the movie is at its most interesting when Forest Whitaker’s character finally begins to suss out that something more than a simple case of a deranged man in a phone booth is going on here. We then see his attempt to walk a very fine line to prevent an innocent man getting shot in the phone booth, or a passer-by getting shot on the street. We see this in well acted scenes.
The dialogue, though very liberally sprinkled with the F-word, is quite enjoyable for the cat and mouse game which the Caller plays with Stu Shepherd, and also for the tactics employed by Police Chief Ramey as he tries to control a volatile situation.
It is however, the radical humbling of Stu's personality which forms the key to the movie's theme and the raison-d'etre (such as it is) for the Caller's actions. Early in the exchanges between the two, Stu is as arrogant and obnoxious as ever. He angrily tries to dominate the Caller with a show of self-importance:
- 'If you're some f***** up failed actor I wouldn't handle, or some prick intern I fired, I will hunt you down and I will crush you! You will never work in this town ..... Trust me, I can turn people into Gods and I can turn you into a total f****** loser, if you weren't one already! Do you hear me? Am I upsetting you?'
But this is at a time before he knows of the Caller's real intent, and the menace he poses. Later in the film the moment described under 'Favourite Scenes' develops. The Caller forces Stu Shepherd to choose between two awful options - he can take an action calculated to get him shot dead by the police, or he can bare his soul publicly and humiliatingly to all around him, including his wife Kelly, his girlfriend Pam, and his assistant Adam who have now arrived on the scene. This is the option he chooses, chastising himself for his adulterous fantasies, his amoral work practices and his weakness as a human being:
- 'I have never done anything for anybody who couldn't do something for me. I string along an eager kid with promises I'll pay him money. I only keep him around because he looks up to me. Adam, if you're watching, don't be a publicist. You're too good for it. I lie in person and on the phone. I lie to my friends. I lie to newspapers and magazines who, who sell my lies to more and more people. I am just a part of a big cycle of lies, I should be f****** president. I wear all this Italian shit because underneath I still feel like the Bronx. I think I need these clothes and this watch. My Two thousand dollar watch is a fake and so am I. I've neglected the things I should have valued most. ..... Kelly, looking at you now, I'm ashamed of myself. All right? I mean, I work so hard on this image, on Stu Shepherd, the asshole who refers to himself in the third person that I only proved I should be alone. I have just been dressing up as something I'm not for so long, I'm so afraid no one will like what's underneath. But here I am, just flesh and blood and weakness, and uh and I love you so f****** much. And, um, I take off this ring because it only reminds me of how I've failed you, and I don't, don't want to give you up. I want to make things better, but it may not be my choice anymore. You deserve better.'
In the space of an hour of humiliation, Stu seems to have come a very long way.
This movie is quite short by modern standards, and that was a good decision by the director. Even at 81 minutes, some have suggested the film begins to drag, and certainly if the movie was padded out to greater length, the limited action and set changes would lessen the appeal.
Some feel that the story line and message of the film are a bit heavy handed, and Stu's come-uppance and his promise to change his ways under pressure from a moralising assassin is pretentious and manipulative. The storyline certainly isn't particularly credible, and one does feel that a more deserving victim could have been found than this shoddy yet law-abiding citizen, who even at the start of the movie has sufficient sense of guilt to remove his wedding ring when flirting with his girlfriend on the phone. But perhaps if the lead character had been a nastier piece of work than Stu Shepherd we could not have felt the necessary sympathy for him which we develop towards the end.
The 'twist' at the very end of the movie is rather predictable.
THE GRADUAL DISINTEGRATION OF STU SHEPHERD'S EGO
WHAT'S SO GOOD ABOUT IT?
Unlikely though the scenario is, it is quite easy to identify with Stu and to wonder how we would be in such a situation - forced to behave in a very degrading or humiliating way, with no way of informing those we love that we are acting under duress.
More than this, the film appeals for the thoughtful acting of Forest Whitaker as the policeman, whose actions and decisions seem believable, and for the dramatic and convincing range of emotions exhibited by Colin Farrell in a great performance, as his character and personality degenerates from objectionable egocentric poseur, to humble and pathetic wreck. Emotional development of a human being is one of the hardest things to portray really credibly in a short movie, yet Director Joel Schumacher and Colin Farrell certainly manage it here.
The film could clearly be adapted to work as a theatre play, and indeed ran as a play in Japan for several months in 2009.
CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS
'Phone Booth' is a very unusual film. We have an unappealing central figure in a desperate plight, and a psychotic gunman we never see (till the very end). We have very little action, and all the action which does take place from the moment that phone rings and Stu Shepherd picks it up, is concentrated on one small set - the phone booth on the side of the street. It’s something of an experimental film, rather in the manner in which Alfred Hitchcock set two of his films - ‘Rope’ and ‘Rear Window’ in one room sets. Joel Schumacher isn’t perhaps a director with the reputation of a Hitchcock, but nonetheless in ‘Phone Booth’ he pulls off a taut, tense psychological thriller pared to the bone with no wasted camera work and no wasted words. I believe it is a film which would appeal to many, and is well worth watching.
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SOME OF MY OTHER CRIME FILM AND MY THRILLER REVIEWS
- Film Review - Falling Down (1993)
Falling Down is the study of a man's tortured mental descent from law abiding citizen to crazed killer, as he walks across town. Another film by Joel Schumacher
- Film Review - Rear Window (1954)
A Hitchcock thriller set almost entirely in just one apartment room, with bored, incapacitated James Stewart idly watching his neighbours through the rear window. It's innocuous enough - until he begins to suspect one neighbour just may be a murderer
- Film Review - Red Corner (1997)
Jack Moore is an American in Beijing, and he's in trouble; accused of murder under a brutal judicial system. Even the young female lawyer assigned to his case doesn't seem to believe him - at first.
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