Independent films have always had to rely on the strength of their stories to compete with Hollywood blockbusters. These smaller films have the advantage of being able to take more risks, experimenting with different concepts and storylines. Recently, Hollywood has been paying more and more attention to the increasing success of these films, and a new breed of small films with big actors is emerging.
“Phone Booth,” starring Colin Farrell (and made for under $13 million dollars), is one of these films. The concept is intriguingly simple. Farrell’s character, Stuart, answers a ringing phone. On the other end is a sniper, voiced by Kiefer Sutherland, who tells Stuart he will shoot him if he leaves the booth or hangs up the phone. Minus a short introduction to his character, Stuart is in the phone booth for a little over an hour. That’s it. That’s the movie. The entire thing takes place within the phone booth.
This turns out to be one of the film’s greatest strengths. By confining the action to the phone booth, greater emphasis is placed on the main character and his situation. Farrell’s acting is dynamic enough to keep the action moving along without ever changing the setting. As the sniper, Sutherland’s line delivery is excellent and he adds real drama to an otherwise unbelievable premise. It’s storytelling at its rawest, with nothing on the screen but the protagonist and his antagonist, in direct conflict until the story’s resolution.
It’s in the reasoning for that conflict where the film misses its target. The sniper’s motive, why he would want to trap Stuart in a phone booth, is never made clear. The sniper continuously taunts Stuart, but reveals a shred of his substance. Occasionally he digresses into speeches about morality and the sinful nature of man, but it’s hard to tell if he really means it or not. Stuart seems to have been picked out because he is a selfish person and the sniper wants to punish that selfishness. This seems extreme. When we are introduced to Stuart we see that he has an attitude problem and that he’s a little full of himself, but he isn’t really that bad of a guy. He’s kind of like us.
This leaves “Phone Booth” feeling a bit like an old-fashioned morality play. Stuart is supposed to be seen as the Everyman and people who watch the film are supposed to learn by his example to live honest lives, lest we be punished from above (in this case, by a rooftop sniper). It’s annoying, but fortunately isn’t pervasive enough to ruin the film’s tension.
Director Joel Schumacher spoke briefly about “Phone Booth” when he was here at UCSB last quarter for an anniversary screening of his film “Lost Boys.” Schumacher has had a mottled career, with films ranging from cult classics like the aforementioned “Lost Boys” to well-received independent fare like “Tigerland” to, well, “Batman and Robin.”
In his visit, Schumacher talked about how the film was originally scheduled for release last fall, but was delayed due to the story’s similarities with the D.C.-area sniper shootings taking place at the time. Schumacher agreed with the studio’s decision to delay the film.
Since its original release date, two major films featuring Farrell, “The Recruit” and “Daredevil,” have opened in the #1 spot at the box office. This should give “Phone Booth” a boost its opening weekend, further encouraging Hollywood’s lean toward smaller films. “Phone Booth” won’t exactly do for phones what “Jaws” did for the ocean, but it’s still worth checking out.