July 9, 2006


Phone Booth: A New Genre Comes of Age: It’s official: the gunpoint conversion movie is now its own genre. And while it feels new, it comes from one of the oldest and most revered traditions of our storytelling species. (Read Mercer Schuchardt, MetaPhilm)

The caller, like the God of the Old Testament who is the original caller, is invisible, all powerful, and known only by his voice and the effects of either his wrath or his blessing. Only if the caller is an all-knowing God can the audience make sense of what otherwise looks like completely random violence.

What the caller wants, it turns out, is for Stuart to make a full-blown confession and repent on live national television. He says to Stuart, “Bare your soul.” Stuart complies in what is one of the most compelling confessions ever shot on film. The scene is so moving, in fact, that in our real life, the real crowd watching the filming burst into applause once Mr. Farrell completed the scene—which only had to be shot once.

This alone, I think, tells us something significant about the state of things today. Whether you call it moral decay, widening of the gyre, or spiritual warfare, the decline and fall of America’s moral empire has been palpable for the last decade in a way that it hasn’t been before. And this is why, I believe, more films like Phone Booth are showing up at the multiplex, because desperate times call for desperate measures. As such, Phone Booth represents the coming of age of a new film genre, the gunpoint conversion movie.

Raymond K. Hessel in Fight Club, Nicholas Van Orton in The Game, and the executives of Mooby Corp in Dogma are all examples of this genre.

In Fight Club, Chuck Palahniuk updates the genre when his main character Tyler Durden begins practicing what he calls “human sacrifice.” Threatening death at gunpoint, he forces his victims to actually engage their life and become the person they wanted to be.

In an earlier David Fincher film, The Game, protagonist Nicholas Van Orton is pushed to the breaking point by the seemingly ruthless CRS Corporation, who make him believe he has killed his brother and his only escape is to commit suicide—on exactly the day (his 48th birthday) that his father before him committed suicide. Van Orton leaps to his death from atop a building, only to land squarely in the air mattress of his savior, who actually has been his brother’s keeper all along.

In Dogma, all the executives except a few are gunned down for their spiritual blindness, just as the porn king, the pimp, and the corrupt businessman are annihilated in Phone Booth.

Walker Percy, greatly influenced by Flannery O’Connor, addressed this situation in most, if not all, of his novels, as well as his non-fiction. In The Last Gentleman, he writes, “There is a certain freedom in having your house burn down.” Perhaps the most famous example from literature is Flannery O’Connor’s short story, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” in which the character of the Misfit, who remorselessly kills the grandmother, later says of her, “She would of been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”

This film kept popping up on my recommended lists at Peerflix and Netflix so finally I got it without knowing much about it. It's so contrived and full of plot holes that it requires repeated suspensions of disbelief. There's too much profanity to no good end and the only characters of any substance are Colin Farrell's, Forrest Whitaker's cop and The Caller. The two women, in particular, are such ciphers that there's not much drama to the threat hanging over them. And Farrell's character is so off-putting initially that there's a strong temptation to let the tiger out of the cage.

However, if you stick with it a while, it does seem to be a religious allegory, of some sort or another. I was curious to see whether my own impressions were off-the-wall so Googled "phone booth sniper god" and found this essay which does jibe. I too was especially moved by the confession that Farrell gives and by what is a true moment of self-recognition and a heartfelt plea for forgiveness. What's especially interesting is that it is only under the pressure of The Caller's unrelenting gaze that this character begins to become the man he wishes he was. Likewise helpful is that he is not a moral monster and his sins are generally those that all of us are guilty of. None of us could withstand the gaze either.

In his new book, The Central Liberal Truth, Lawrence E. Harrison suggests that the most successful human cultures can be distinguished by two chief characteristics, the first is the faith that men have free will and that their fates rest in their own hand; the second the belief that men are, however, required to choose to conform to moral strictures. If we consider the Enlightenment and the various rationalist isms to be nothing more than the attempt to escape from morality, then we can look at the brutality of The Caller as necessary to get Farrell's attention and recall him to the fact that he is Observed and being judged on the basis of how well he loves his fellow men. That's why, as Farrell stands there, bloodied and battered about, the viewer can't help feeling his character has been given a great gift (as Clarence said to George Bailey, in somewhat parallel circumstances). He's been forced to stop and listen, afforded a look at himself as God sees him, and granted an opportunity to recast himself in greater accord with His Image.

The one problem I had with the film and the allegory is that The Caller obviously enjoys what he's doing. He's so emotionally invested in controlling Farrell that it somewhat diminishes the free will point nor can it really be reconciled with even the God of the Old Testament, who does not, after all, have fun with Abraham, Noah, Job, and Pharoah.

That said, it's very much more thoughtful than the usual fare and certainly worth a viewing.

-INFO: Phone Booth (IMDB.com)
-REVIEW ARCHIVES: Phone Booth (IMDB.com)
-REVIEW ARCHIVES: Phone Booth (MetaCritic)
-REVIEW: of Phone Booth (Jeffrey Overstreet, Looking Closer)
-REVIEW: of Phone Booth ( DAVID BRUCE, Hollywood Jesus)
-REVIEW: of Phone Booth (Steven D. Greydanus, Decent Films Guide)
-REVIEW: of Phone Booth (Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times)
-REVIEW: of Phone Booth (James Berardinelli, Reel Views)
-INTERVIEW: When life and art collide: talking to Joel Schumacher about what happened when the real-life D.C. sniper crisis led to the postponed release of this month's Phone Booth, his movie about a fictional sniper (Interview, April 2003)

Posted by Orrin Judd at July 9, 2006 4:00 PM

Very much enjoyed both The Game and Fight Club. For some reason we seem to enjoy just about every Edward Norton film.

Posted by: Rick T. at July 9, 2006 7:18 PM

I thought I was the only person who likes this film. The pacing of the film is excellent, and the climax is quite powerful. Farrell usually doesen't impress me but his acting during the climax of the story is very good. I've put the DVD in just to watch the confession scene - it is a great moment in film, might be Farrell's best scene in his career.

Posted by: Shelton at July 9, 2006 7:19 PM

It seemed like an interesting first act and then it ended. When the credits began rolling I actually turned to the others and said, this is it?

Posted by: Chris Durnell at July 10, 2006 12:06 PM