On its surface, Phone Booth couldn’t be simpler. A guy named Stu (Colin Farrell) answers a phone on the corner of 53rd and 8th in New York City. As it turns out, the caller has his eye on Stu, literally, watching him through a high-powered rifle scope. To underline his threat, the sniper takes out a loud-mouthed pimp who happens by, at which point the cops and the press amass, assuming Stu is the shooter. For the rest of the movie, Stu — accused by the caller of being selfish and cynical, that is, modern-mannish — is caught in that phone booth.
Beneath this surface, Phone Booth is still mostly simple, but in a more interesting way. Conceived some 30 years ago by writer Larry Cohen — the same Larry Cohen who made Hell Up in Harlem and It’s Alive! — Phone Booth possesses an admirable narrative economy. The characters are sketched quickly. The shooter (played by Kiefer Sutherland, who spends about 99% of the film off screen) speaks grandly, with a flourish that suggests he only half-believes the philosophical claptrap he’s running. But that self-awareness makes him rather enjoyable, a villain with a sense of proportion, instead of lost in some goony delusional space.
Stu’s self-love is more visible, and not a little exacerbated by his small on-screen space. Inside the phone booth, he manages some spectacular gyrations inside that phone booth, aided by an acrobatic camera and Farrell’s surprisingly elastic face. That’s not to say, however, that he’s not instantly recognizable.
As soon as you see Stu, strutting down the sidewalk, wearing an open-necked shirt and slick sunglasses, you think you know something about him. He juggles a couple of cell phones, barks orders at an eagerly puppy-doggish assistant, and trades Britney Spears tickets for good favor with a cop (presumably, this bit was in place before the actor’s instantly notorious night out with the singer, as the film’s opening was delayed since last November, owing to the DC sniper’s activities).
Stu’s got a pretty young wife, Kelly (Radha Mitchell), and a pretty young aspiring actress “friend,” Pam (Katie Holmes), whom he calls daily from the phone booth in question (this because his pretty young, and maybe suspicious, wife checks his cell phone records). Because Stu so regularly comes to this particular phone booth, “the last one of its kind,” according to the shooter’s voiceover narration, he’s an easy mark. Because Stu thinks he’s got everything so under control, that he can cheat a little here and there, and that a little material flash allows him moral wiggle room, the shooter erects an elaborate motivation for himself, the mission to punish those who abuse their privilege.
The shooter thus conveys a certain menace, but also a certain predictability. Claiming that he’s previously shot a couple of other sinners, this holier-than-thou serial killer is surely familiar (see Seven‘s John Doe, for one instance, or the Unabomber). The shooter’s reasoning is self-supporting: precisely because Stu’s sins are so petty (he hasn’t technically slept with Pam, only thought about it), he can be deemed venal. At the same time, the shooter represents newly terrifying possibilities. He doesn’t need to stalk anyone in alleys or park across the street from his apartment. All he has to do is trace his credit card or phone records, watch him occasionally from a long distance, and then aim a high tech weapon at him from blocks away, the little red dot of a laser sight the only sign — and important one, of course — that might give him away.
A function of increasing anxieties about security, surveillance technology, and loss of privacy, this sniper is symptomatic, of the selfish, cynical, isolated culture he despises as well as a disturbing, bureaucratic response to it. Directed by Joel Schumacher (whose experiences on Batman and Falling Down seem equally applicable here), the film opens brilliantly, with the camera seeming to cruise (via digital effects) through a twisty, sinuous cavern of communications, a series of wires and circuits, before it bounces off satellites and diving back inside the microchips that keep track of most every aspect of urban life. Emerging briefly to appreciate a live curbside performance by a doo-wop group (production credited to DJ Shadow), the camera then takes up its rush again, following Stu as he hurls himself down the sidewalk, barely pausing to breathe as he wheels and deals.
Stu’s careening, and the apparent obliviousness of the women he balances so precariously (while the film does so deftly, with split screens), suggest that his recklessness is a way of life, not his fault exactly, but a common condition, well-known to everyone watching him, including the shooter. Still, the film’s frequent assumption of the shooter’s point of view doesn’t so much put you in his position as it does demonstrate how easy it is to abuse and judge, to assume moral high ground when none is warranted.
The single character who comes off looking decent is Captain Ramey (Forest Whitaker), observant negotiator and all around nice, if bland, guy. Though he arrives on the scene believes the guy in the booth is a murderer, and takes some understandable offense when Stu (at the shooter’s behest) starts casting aspersions on his manhood, Ramey figures it all out pretty quickly. This means that the rest of the film (which runs a tight 80 minutes) involves a modicum of technical chatter (as the cops track the call’s source but never really figure out what’s going on) and a lot of public agonizing for Stu.
That this goes on in such a little space is both ironic and telling, just as Phone Booth is at once oddly dated and utterly contemporary. When spilling your guts in front of a million tv viewers looks like a vital, ethical decision, the show is way out of control.