Phone Booth

A phone rings somewhere and someone has to answer it,” a voiceover at the beginning of Phone Booth assures us. Well, unless voice mail picks up, or the machine. But we’ll ignore that because in this remarkably simplistic psychological suspense film someone does pick up.

That someone is Stu Shephard (Colin Farrell), a fast talking quick thinking public relations executive. Stu plays everything fast and loose. He entices his young assistant to work for free with promises of learning the biz. He exchanges lies and his credibility for good press. He’s dishonest with his wife Kelly, and he’s trying to sleep with Pamela McFadden, one of his clients.

It’s this last transgression which lands Stu in the most trouble. Everyday he visits the same phone booth – one of the last in New York City, the narration tells us – to call Pamela so his wife can’t track the call on his cell phone bill. (Quick thinking indeed.) He whispers sweet lies into her ear in hopes of luring her to a nearby hotel bed. Today, however, the phone rings in Stu’s phone booth and he does indeed answer it. On the other end is a sniper promising to kill Stu if he hangs up.

Stu’s indignation and Bronx bravado quickly change to fear and repentance as the sniper reveals intimate details about Stu’s life, then whizzes a bullet off his right ear. A red laser pointed below his right shoulder doesn’t help matters.

The phone booth, once Stu’s liberation from the ties of social contract, seems to shrink before our eyes and he’s trapped inside. Things get stickier for Stu when the sniper takes out a local pimp and the New York Police Department arrive thinking he’s the perpetrator.

The movie progresses much like this, giving us small scraps of plot and motive and storyline to bolster the central conflict. Ultimately, though the appeal and charm of Phone Booth lie exactly there.

Colin Farrell is a revelation, compensating for the often over-the-top sniper voiceovers. He plays the part coolly and even comically right up until the breaking point: the sniper’s threat to kill either Kelly or Pamela who have both arrived at the scene. Then he melts as the movie’s tension crescendos.

Director Joel Schumacher, who seems to do his best work with Farrell (see also Tigerland), puts together a taut movie that even at a mere 88 minutes seems a tad long. His Hitchcockian vision never waivers despite the almost gimmicky premise and the sniper’s misplaced sense of motivation. The phone booth is Shumacher’s world – its fears, insecurities, triumphs and interactions compressed and compacted. He gives us just enough to keep us interested and nothing more. Considering the excessive productions he typically handles, that is high praise.

The sniper’s motivation does, indeed, pose the film’s major problem. What little plot we do have tries to link Stu’s predicament with a series of morally dubious sniper victims in New York. However, Stu’s transgressions are tame by most standards – perhaps the point here – and the sniper’s role as a vindictive moral guardian is overplayed and under explained.

Phone Booth casts the why to the side though in favor of a compelling momentum, a headlong thrust to a climax. When we get there, we realize that this may not be high art or even very realistic, but it’s still unnerving. The twist ending may pack just enough wallop to convince you never to answer a ringing phone again.