Viking Night: Phone Booth
By Bruce Hall
November 10, 2015
Phone Booth is almost as much of an anachronism as its namesake. It’s an old enough film that it spends most of its first five minutes reminding us how ubiquitous cell phones are becoming, and what a novelty it is to still see a phone booth in regular operation outside a science fiction film or a particularly unimaginative Grand Theft Auto mission. On the other hand, Phone Booth is recent enough to still stand out as that rare, high concept story that takes place almost entirely in one location, relying almost entirely on the power of ideas to create and sustain tension. Not only is that hard to do, it’s hard to do well, and that’s why on almost every level, no matter what your expectations were going in, Phone Booth will more than likely exceed them.
Claustrophobic stories quite often turn out to be morality plays, and this one does not buck that tradition. A young Colin Farrell plays Stu Shepard, a sleazy New York publicist who’s just as at home on the red carpet as he is trawling the streets for celebrity dirt, all in the name of making a buck and getting his own name in the papers. As hard as it is to believe a guy like this is married, he is. But don’t worry - true to character, he’s been carrying on an affair with someone named Pam (Katie Holmes), setting up each liaison through a pay phone, to avoid pulling a Tiger Woods and getting busted through cell phone records.
It’s both profoundly impressive and horrendously creepy that Stu has managed to play Pam for as long as he has, but an unseen interloper spoils the party when the pay phone rings, Stu answers, and is mercilessly taunted by a crackpot extortionist (Kiefer Sutherland), armed with extraordinary insight into Stu’s life. Oh, and he’s also armed with a .30 caliber bolt action rifle with a tactical scope. That’s a real attention getter, and I suspect if JFK had known what was coming, he’d have leaned over and confessed all kinds of things to his better half in a similar moment of clarity. Stu’s softer side begins to emerge, in the way it only can when one is forced to beg for one’s life.
But the man on the other end of the phone doesn’t quite fit the profile of a garden variety psycho killer. The Shooter confesses to having publicly executed a wealthy pedophile and a corrupt Wall Street executive - a stone cold killer-with-a-conscience, avenging their sins for the sake of the public good. And now he’s got his sights on Stu - a liar, a lothario, a paparazzo with a pen. If that’s not bad enough, the Sniper makes an example of a nearby pimp who takes exception to Stu’s monopolization of the phone booth, attracting the largest concentration of stone-faced riot police since the 9/11 attacks.
Lucky for Stu, Forest Whitaker brings his Oscar winning gravitas to the role of Captain Ramey, the obligatory sympathetic detective who senses that something here is not as it seems. He makes it his mission to uncover the truth and extricate Stu safely. The result of this is an interesting game of cat and mouse whereby the Sniper forbids Stu from telling the police what’s happening, Ramey suspects this to be the case, and has to find a way to communicate with Stu without tipping the Sniper off. The Sniper seems keen to prod Stu into a public moral epiphany, but because, as I mentioned, he is also a psycho killer, really gets off on tweaking the police and has taken elaborate measures to cover his tracks.