Phone Booth (2002)

Phone Booth is a fun little thriller, lasting no more than 90 minutes in length, that kept me on the edge of my seat for a good portion of its running time. It has only one major performance, here given by Colin Farrell, who has to play opposite a voiceover added in post production by Keifer Sutherland. It contains only the most basic of plots, one location, and mostly consists of dialogue, but it is incredibly tense and I would recommend it to anyone at any time as a result.

Stu Shepard (Farrell), is a publicist residing in New York City. He’s pretty confident in his abilities, he seems to know everyone around town, and he knows exactly how to play different publications against each other. The opening scene shows him walking around the streets, talking a lot on his cell phone, and acting like he’s the coolest cat around — even though he looks like kind of a jerk to us. We find out that he makes a phone call every day from the last remaining phone booth on the street, doing so to call a woman named Pam (Katie Holmes), whom he wishes to woo with his money and charm, I guess, despite being married to a woman named Kelly (Radha Mitchell).

After ending a call with Pam, the phone booth telephone rings. Of course, not wanting to be incredibly rude, he picks up the phone, and a familiar voice (to us, anyway), is on the other line. It turns out that the man behind the voice has a gun focused on Stu’s face, and if Stu doesn’t do what he says, the trigger will be pulled. Stu’s now trapped inside the phone booth, while cops eventually show up and also threaten to shoot him, as they’re lead to believe that he killed a man.

So, we’ve got a very tense situation. Stu could be shot by one of two forces at any given moment, and it all relies on what he says and does to each one. Reach for even a wallet, and a trigger-happy policeman might think he’s pulling a gun. Or, disobey the man on the telephone, and a sniper rife will go off from a window of one of the surrounding buildings. You can see how this is a perfect situation around which to stage a thriller.

Phone Booth is basically a morality fable. Purportedly, all the villain wants the lead to do is stop living such a deceitful life and own up to all of his past sins. Come clean about the cheating, tell everyone what a big fake he is, that sort of thing. It plays out more like a battle of wills than anything else, with Stu always trying to sneak his way out, or to lie and save his own life. Well, it’s not going to work this time, or so the voice on the other end of the line thinks.

Sutherland’s villain is a little too knowing to be completely realistic. He sees all, knows all — even things that he shouldn’t possibly be able to know or see. He cannot be outsmarted because that’s how the film has to work, up to a point. He’s basically God, I guess, and if that’s who he’s representing, then I guess it makes sense that we only get to hear his voice, that he knows everything, and that he’s trying to teach a lesson. That he’d sacrifice other people, most of whom probably have lived a better life than Stu, to teach Stu a lesson is what doesn’t make sense in that case.

I’m probably putting more thought into it than director Joel Schumacher and writer Larry Cohen did. They wanted to make a thriller, one that didn’t feature any time wasted, and that’s what they did. Explaining how the bad guy knows what he does or what he represents would waste valuable seconds. That’s unacceptable according to them, so the film has been trimmed to a brief 81 minutes.

I won’t complain about that kind of running time for a film like this, as it’s the perfect amount of time to suspend your disbelief. You don’t have time to ask questions when the film is this relentlessly paced and this brief; you just have to sit back and enjoy the ride. The runtime and the pacing are what make it work as well as it does. Because something important it always happening, because at any second, a bullet could shatter the glass and impact our main character’s skull, we don’t think too hard.

The other reason that it works is because of the work done by Colin Farrell in the lead role. Rocking out with a Bronx accent, Farrell is just the kind of fast-talking leading man that the film needs. That he gives off a sense of swagger and self-assuredness is a bonus, and watching him go from brushing off the phone call to taking it as a serious threat is a transformation that a lot of actors wouldn’t sell correctly. He pulls it off wonderfully here, and once he reaches for fear, it stays with him the rest of the way — even though that earlier swagger remains in smaller portions, too.

Phone Booth is a very enjoyable thriller that, while terribly brief, brings with it so many tense moments that it’s absolutely worth your time. It contains a strong leading performance from Colin Farrell, a multitude of enjoyable moments, and had me holding my breath for a large portion of the time it was playing. It’s a minimalist thriller taking place in only one major location, but it’s a terribly enjoyable one as well, and you should definitely give it a watch.

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