Phone Booth‘s Obsolescence Works To Its Thrilling Advantage

Movies Features Colin Farrell
Phone Booth‘s Obsolescence Works To Its Thrilling Advantage

Stumbling upon a public phone in 2023 is like finding a fossil in a sandbox: You’re looking at a relic of a bygone era, tucked away in its ecosystem’s stratum. It doesn’t serve a purpose. It’s there to complement the terroir. Surprisingly, the phone booth’s status as yesterday’s bric-a-brac doesn’t affect Phone Booth, Joel Schumacher’s 2003 psych-thriller, set in and around a New York City call box. Where phone booths are pitiable and obsolete, Phone Booth is taut, sweaty and layered with the post-9/11 paranoia that bled into American cinema throughout the decade; if anything, the obsolescence is to the film’s advantage. 

The grinding advance of industry crushes the old to make way for the new. It’s the capitalist way! We ditched cassette tapes for CDs, and CDs for MP3s; VHS for DVDs, and DVDs for Blu-rays and 4Ks; floppy disks for CD-ROMs; faxes for emails. But no commodity switcheroo has had the same social and cultural impact as the smartphone, at whose altar all other phones–rotary phones, dumb phones, landlines–have been sacrificed. Whether iPhones and Galaxies improve our lives is an argument without end. One day, we curse our handheld computers for giving everyone, strangers, friends and especially our parents, unfettered access to us; the next, we’re doomscrolling on Instagram and zoning out on Dungeons of Dreadrock

Regardless, time’s passage has rendered the smartphone’s predecessors quaint, and opportunities to see antediluvian phone models in the wild are rare. That goes for phone booths, too. Once an essential public good, they’re now largely blinked from existence. Today, Phone Booth, a movie that met with modest scrutiny on release for both being too thin and too heavy-handed, is a reminder of how people used to communicate with each other from a distance, filtered into a singular chamber piece. But the film isn’t quaint at all. It’s nerve-wracking.

Stuart (Colin Farrell), a PR scumbag greased up with self-absorption, makes a pit stop at a Times Square phone booth; he’s calling his mistress, Pam (Katie Holmes), while his wife, Kelly (Radha Mitchell), is none the wiser. He hangs up. The phone calls back. It’s a man, credited as the Caller (Kiefer Sutherland), who instructs Stuart not to leave the booth under penalty of death. Stuart doesn’t buy the “death” bit, but the Caller gives him a taste of his skills as a crack shot; he knows all about Pam and Kelly, too, enough that Stuart knows the guy means business. When a pimp tries to bust into the booth, this intimate hostage situation blossoms into a murder party. Everyone’s invited, too: Pam, Kelly and Ed Ramey (Forest Whitaker), a police captain on the scene, gulled by the Caller into believing Stuart to be dangerous.

Schumacher’s script is authored by genre legend Larry Cohen, whose 1976 sci-fi-horror-crime procedural God Told Me To feels like Phone Booth’s distant cousin; Both movies orbit killing sprees committed by people who claim a higher calling, though not necessarily a higher power. The various murderers in God Told Me To recite the film’s title when pressed about their motives. They do what they do at the Lord Almighty’s command, lambs heeding their shepherd. The Caller has an actual mission: forcing dishonest men to turn over new leaves, by any means necessary. “You don’t have to thank me, nobody ever does,” he tells a terrified Stuart in their parting exchange. “I just hope your newfound honesty lasts. Because if it doesn’t, you’ll be hearing from me.” Cohen doesn’t give the Caller an explicitly Christian background. He’s just a moralist with goals, plus a really big sniper rifle.

The Caller’s absolutism dovetails somewhat with the twitchy anxieties that bubble under the surface of so many 2000s-era movies, but what Phone Booth boils down to, in 2003 as in 2023, is its location. The phone booth is a prison, and a mousetrap. Once Stuart picks up that phone, he trips the spring and the jaws snap shut around him; the “public” part of “public pay phone” becomes a thumbscrew on Stuart’s swaggering composure. The longer this call goes, the more things spiral out of his control, the more attention he gets, and the more his exterior bravado, the fake persona he’s erected around himself for the benefit of his career and his extramarital activities, deteriorates.

It’s a stroke of optimism that Phone Booth assumes Stuart is a person worthy of empathy at all, and that there’s a chunk of decency at his core. A misanthropic take on this material would treat Stuart’s loss of image as a fate worse than death. Schumacher and Cohen treat death as the ultimate price, and it’s a price paid in the booth, where Stuart can’t simply run and hide from the Caller. This movie can’t exist in a world where smartphones are the norm, though certainly cell phone thrillers exist. Just one year after Phone Booth premiered, for instance, David R. Ellis released Cellular, where the action is connected and driven by a single call; the difference is that the caller is the victim, not the killer, and the phone is mobile, which relieves the film of the suffocating sensation that’s integral to Phone Booth

This is not a bad thing in and of itself (though Cellular is a bad movie), but Cellular’s freedom of movement does reflect what’s special about Phone Booth. We’re on the go with our smartphones. We aren’t glued to a single spot when we use them; the script has to find a way to make that happen, a la Rodrigo Cortés’ Buried or Brad Anderson’s The Call. Predators will prey, of course, but when we take a mobile call from a killer, at least we can run. In Phone Booth, Stuart has nowhere to go. The location becomes both a corral and a confessional for the Caller and Stuart. His desperation, his need to get out of the booth, becomes ours, because we’re stuck right in there with him.

Desperation isn’t missing in cell-based thrillers, of course. A buzz from a serial madman like the Caller would make anyone feel a sense of acute mortal peril, whether they’re on the couch or on the run. Phone Booth’s single location element isn’t the key here, either, not exactly. It’s the film’s public quality that gives it such ferocious tension. Of course Stuart doesn’t want to be out in the open. He’s using the pay phone for discretion’s sake. What Schumacher manages to pin down here is the panicked sensation of exposure. It’s one thing, in the smartphone age, to know that hackers can bust in on your privacy and throw your dirty laundry out on the line for everyone to see. It’s another, in the payphone age, to have that laundry hung out to dry so that you can see everyone seeing. 

The confrontational component, realized not just through close-up photography but an increasing number of extras and crowd shots, is key to Phone Booth’s efficacy. 

Here, the public pay phone isn’t an object to mock, like an 8-track. It’s a torture chamber to fear, like an iron maiden. Maybe it’s for the best that phone booths have fallen out of use. “You hear a phone ring and it could be anybody,” says Sutherland in voiceover, taking the film to its credits roll. “But a ringing phone has to be answered, doesn’t it?” We’re savvy enough to ignore unfamiliar numbers on our smartphones, but not enough to resist the allure of the antiquated.

Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.

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