A Ringing Phone Has to be Answered | Phone Booth Turns 15
Amazing that we – by “we” I mean the population of Ireland – consider Colin Farrell to be some kind of sound uncle character. He comes around every so often probably having ingested a kale smoothie after an hour of yoga. But there’s that past the family doesn’t talk about; the coke binges, lost jobs and that arrest. It makes looking at photos of him from that era all the more uncomfortable, but you can’t look away, not really.
That’s what makes Phone Booth so watchable even 15 years on. There are other reasons, but we’ll get into those later and just to be clear I don’t have an uncle that was into coke, at least not that I know about. Phone Booth finds Bronx publicist and all-around asshole Stu Shepard (Farrell) trapped in the booth by a sniper (Kiefer Sutherland) all while police Captain Ramey (Forest Whittaker) and Stu’s wife Kelly (Radha Mitchell) try to get him out.
Colin Farrell from 2003 was a different person back then but no less of an actor. Though his success would eventually turn critical rather than commercial his talents were by no means dulled by the drug addiction at the time or the decline in roles after a stint in rehab. The nervousness he displays as Stu in Phone Booth can be seen in the likes of his recent work with Yorgos Lanthimos in The Killing of a Sacred Deer but most notably in The Lobster. The difference is that Larry Cohen’s script and Joel Schumacher’s direction turns Farrell into a shivering wreck by the film’s end whereas Lanthimos limits this and reigns in Farrell’s energy like lightning trapped in a jar.
Stu leans weirdly close to the public perception many people had of Colin Farrell at the time. Styled as a Hollywood bad boy thanks to the drugs, parties and endless train of famous relationships you can’t help but feel that Phone Booth was at best an exercise in parodying everything the rising young star saw in Hollywood or at worst some kind of metaphorical onscreen vivisection. But beyond the glamour and the nasty underbelly of that glamour Farrell has always done his best regardless of how shite the project. Luckily Phone Booth is not one of those shite projects.
The idea behind Phone Booth was originally pitched by Cohen to Alfred Hitchcock in the 60s but they couldn’t give the main character a reason to stay in the booth, so Chen left it until he came up with the idea of the sniper in the late 90s. From there cell phones slotted right in. Our relationship with technology especially the communication kind has always been very dependent. Phone Booth brings nothing new to the conversation that was going on and is still going on regarding privacy, but it does have that distinct post-9/11 fear to it.
Matthew Libatique’s camera moves like The Bourne Supremacy on speed. Every third or fourth shot is filmed from some bizarre angle. The camera is either leaning like a drunk at 3 am or divided in four like a child’s school lunch sandwiches. It has the worst qualities of 24 but also some of its best. Nonetheless it all adds to the sweat inducing tension of the film. None of the supporting cast really stand out but they don’t need to because all that’s really needed is Stu and the caller.
When I say the best bits of 24 I really mean Kiefer Sutherland but there’s also the fact that it’s set in real time. The film lasts 81 minutes and so does Stu’s time in the booth. In fact, the film is so similar to 24 it’s a wonder it wasn’t a weird vehicle that was released just to get people excited for a new season. The only thing is that the Jack Bauer is a psycho punishing easily caught criminals which is a little unusual considering the global acts of super-terrorism he’s prevented before. Kiefer Sutherland is terrifying here though the clear dialogue between him and Farrell does kind of ruin the over-the-phone realism. Still his dry voice over a phone line followed by a silent rifle shot is enough to set your spine to sweating.
Speaking of sweat and other filthy things Phone Booth looks disgusting. Much like films set in New York throughout the 70s this film has a layer of stuck-on grime. I popped the DVD out of the tray and I had to scrape the dirt off the disc. It’s helped by the weird grey filter Schumacher put over everything presumably to make sunny LA look like a rotten Big Apple. Even Stu’s supposedly expensive suit looks horrible though it could just be early 2000s fashion. All of this grime lends itself to make Phone Booth extra convincing in how nasty the core conceit of the film is.
The film opens and closes with shots of a satellite and a chorus of phone conversations. It’s something Phone Booth never touches on but then companies stealing our data by making us pay for handheld supercomputers probably seemed like a cyberpunk nightmare back then. It’s scary to think that technology has progressed as far as it has but it’s also nice to think about how well Colin Farrell is doing for himself now. I figured I’d end on a positive.