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Film: Phonebooth

"Isn't it funny? You hear a phone ring and it could be anybody. But a ringing phone has to be answered, doesn't it?"
The Caller

Phone Booth is a 2003 suspense film directed by Joel Schumacher about a publicist, Stu Shepard (Colin Farrell), who finds himself held hostage in a phone booth in full view of the New York City public by a sniper (voiced by Kiefer Sutherland) who has uncovered him plotting an affair with Pamela McFadden (Katie Holmes), and wants him to change his ways. To prove his seriousness, the voice on the other end snipes a bystander who's hassling Stu to get out of the booth.

As Stu plays a very dangerous hair-trigger game with the voice, the police show up and are perplexed by the panicked man who refuses to exit the phone booth. Thus begins a three way battle of wits as Police Captain Ed Ramey (Forest Whitaker) tries to decipher Stu's situation.

One of the selling points of the movie during previews was that it is set in Real Time, often using Split Screen techniques to show things going on at the same time. This came on the heels of 24's initial success on TV (coincidentally, both works feature Kiefer Sutherland in a major role).


Tropes seen in this film:

  • Ain't Too Proud to Beg: Stu can transition from cocksure confidence to sympathetic weeping in a matter of seconds.
  • All Crimes Are Equal: Planned adultery being lumped in with child pornography and corrupt business deals. Then again, Stu is given a lot more chances for redemption than the other two seemed to get.
  • Arson, Murder, and Jaywalking: The Caller mentions two targets before Stu. The first was a child pornographer. The second was a Corrupt Corporate Executive who bankrupted people in his own get rich quick scheme. Stu's crime? Being generally dishonest (but he's a publicist!), a Jerkass, and flirting with a girl who's not his wife. (See Disproportionate Retribution below)
  • Asshole Victim: The Caller's previous victims, and Stu himself (at least in the Caller's opinion). The pimp wasn't exactly a saint either as he attacked Stu with a baseball bat with little provocation, and probably would've acted exactly the same to Stu even if Stu had been polite to him.
  • Ax-Crazy: The Caller. Not exactly a sane man.
  • Bald of Awesome: Sgt. Cole
  • Bald Black Leader Guy: Captain Ed Ramey, who while not technically bald is close enough to count.
  • Begone Bribe: Stu dismisses others by offering them money or valuable items on more than one occasion. The Caller reminds him of this later and comments on how it shows Stu's disrespect towards other people.
  • Berserk Button: Don't call escorts hookers unless you want to avoid having your ear talked off.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Stu's fine, and has learnt some valuable lessons, but the Caller pins the whole thing on the pizza guy and gets away.
  • Black and Gray Morality: Stu is not that good a person, since he's a jerk and a dishonest man cheating on his wife behind her back. The Caller is miles worse, since he targets not only Asshole Victims he thinks deserve to die, but also kills people who don't deserve it at all, like Leon and the pizza guy, and even threatens to murder Stu's wife. And as much of a jerk as Stu is, getting shot to death in the middle of the street for cheating on his wife is a very disproportionate punishment.
  • Book Ends:
    • The communication relay satellite sequence, reversed before the credits roll.
    • Also the Caller's waxing philosophical about phone use at the beginning is echoed at the end.
    "Isn't it funny? You hear a phone ring and it could be anybody. But a ringing phone has to be answered, doesn't it?"
  • Break the Haughty: The whole point of the film.
  • California Doubling: Shot on the only street in Los Angeles which could pass for Manhattan. Though the effect is blown in long shots, when you can see the skyscrapers ending after a few blocks. Also, given the address where the phone booth supposedly is, he should be basically across the street from Studio 54.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Stu tells the negotiator he wants a lawyer. Later, the negotiator uses the term "lawyer" to refer to the sniper and tips Stu off they are onto the man and closing in.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: The pizza delivery guy, but this turns out to be a subversion.
  • Cluster F-Bomb: There's a lot of swearing in this film.
  • Closed Circle: All the primary action takes place in the same city street, with only a handful of very brief scenes that take place somewhere else.
  • Cold Sniper: The Caller is clinically cold whilst holding Stu hostage via a sniper rifle
  • Creepy Monotone: The Caller, for the most part.
  • Dangerously Genre Savvy: The Sniper knows every trick in the hostage taking book.
  • Deadly Delivery: Inverted; the villain lures a pizza delivery man to his hiding place and kills him to fake his own suicide.
  • Deadpan Snarker: The Caller
  • Didn't See That Coming: The Caller didn't foresee Stu claiming the Caller was his psychiatrist, thus making it illegal to listen into anything said between them. This would end up hampering the police even more than the stuff he did to keep him from being tracked. The Caller even wishes he had thought of it.
  • Disconnected By Death: Used, but twisted as the man in the booth was talking to the potential killer. Taken to the extreme involving the police trying to save someone in such a situation.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: The penalty for planning to cheat on your wife (and being a prick) is death.
  • Dramatic Gun Cock: Discussed/exploited/invoked by the Caller. He actually cocks it many times over the movie, and it scares Stu each time.
    The Sniper: You know like in the movies just as the good guy is about to kill the bad guy, he cocks his gun. Now why didn't he have it cocked? Because that sound is scary.
  • Driven to Suicide: After awhile, the Caller grows tired of Stu and urges him to finish himself off, though Stu does not do so. Later subverted with the pizza guy.
  • Eviler Than Thou: While Stu is not exactly a good man, who cheats his wife and lies to all his clients, the Caller is a sadist, sick Knight Templar who is also willing to kill innocent bystanders.
  • Evil Sounds Deep: Kiefer Sutherland's voice seems to get more gravelly as the film goes on.
  • Faux Affably Evil: The Caller's demeanor is pleasant, but is clearly malevolent, with deity-level feelings of grandiosity.
  • Four Eyes, Zero Soul: The Caller once his face is revealed.
  • Freudian Excuse: Played with and subverted. Whatever the Caller's motives for his actions, it had nothing to do with his childhood upbringing, which he says was quite happy.
  • Genre Savvy: Stu to an extent (noting, for example, that the police wouldn't be able to match the bullet in Leon with the handgun the Caller planted in the phone booth), but especially the Caller.
  • Hannibal Lecture: Just about everything the Caller says. It's what makes up most of the movie.
  • High Concept: "Man trapped in phone booth by unseen sniper" - in essence.
  • Hollywood Science: Whilst the hollow round of the gun would have made it difficult to establish if a rifle or a handgun was used, the gunshot entrance into Leon would have proved that there was no way Stu could have shot him.
  • I Can See You
  • I'm a Man, I Can't Help It: Stu uses this as his excuse as to why he's cheating on his wife.
  • Ironic Echo: "Isn't it funny? You hear a phone ring and it could be anybody. But a ringing phone has to be answered, doesn't it?"
  • Insistent Terminology:
    • The hoo- ladies will have you know they're escorts.
    • The Caller also insists that Stu say he wanted to "fuck" his would-be mistress, as opposed to saying he wanted to sleep with her.
  • Instant Emergency Response: Subverted and lampshaded. Stu points out that if the sniper fires his gun, everyone will panic. The sniper does and no one even notices.
  • It's Not Porn, It's Art: The Caller tells Stu about one his previous victims, a child pornographer who claimed he was just an artist.
  • Jerkass: Stu is sleeping around on his wife, and is a smug jerk pretending to be a bigshot to his employees.
  • Karma Houdini: Stu survives the ordeal and reconnects with his wife, but the Caller himself escapes in the end. He inconspicuously visits a medicated Stu just before leaving, threatening to kill him if he doesn't remain a newly upstanding man, and even tells him he doesn't have to thank him for everything he did for Stu. He takes his dissassembled sniper rifle with him, hinting he'll do all of it again somewhere else.
  • Karmic Death: The Caller considers his actions this.
  • Knight Templar: The Caller. His targets are usually unrepentant criminals like murderers, child molesters and, at one point, a businessman who made off with a collapsed company's profits, leaving his employees and investors to rot. His target in the film, however, isn't any type of criminal, but simply Jerkass Stu Shepard, who is having an affair and pretending to be a big shot; not exactly what you would call pure evil. Also, the sniper's methods to get criminals, real or imaginary, to confess, including targeting their loved ones, are quite questionable, to say the least. In the end, Stu confesses to his deeds, and the sniper decides to spare his life and those of his loved ones...though it's hinted that the sniper is going to check up on Stu once in a while to make sure that Stu keeps his promise of not being a douche.
  • Laser Sight: Like the gun cock, used for psychological reasons more than practical reasons.
  • A Million Is a Statistic: "Thousands die every day, but you put one dead body in the middle of a busy street and it makes people crazy."
  • Mood Lighting: The whole film has a very obvious blue sheen to it. This was probably meant in part to hide the aforementioned California Doubling (see above).
  • Nice to the Waiter: Played straight - Stu is charming to anyone who'll do him a favour or anyone he's trying to impress, but a jerk to the pizza guy and his own assistant.
  • No Hero to His Valet: Inverted; Stu is a massive jerk to his assistant Adam, but Adam still looks up to him.
  • Pædo Hunt: Before Stu, one of the Caller's targets was a child pornographer.
  • Painting the Medium: Twice - when the Caller is recounting his previous victims the flashbacks are put through a jerky, high-contrast red filter, while the "I watch" sequence is done in blurred, washed-out visuals reminiscent of the rotoscoping from Waking Life.
  • Phone Booth: This film might be the most triumphant example of it yet.
  • Precision F-Strike:
    The Caller: No. "I wanted to fuck her".
  • Real Time: It cheats a few times but tries to hold to the idea.
  • Redemption Earns Life: See below.
  • Redemption Equals Death: Stu finally admits his wrongdoings to his wife and all of the passers-by, and is shortly afterwards shot. Then it is revealed that it was a rubber bullet, and he's perfectly fine.
  • Serial Killer: The Caller kills other men before catching up with Stu.
  • Shell-Shocked Veteran: Played with and subverted. The Caller pretends to be suffering from PTSD from his experiences as a rifleman in The Vietnam War. When Stu tries to use this to calm him down, he just laughs and admits he made the whole thing up, and points out how old he'd have to be to be a Vietnam veteran.
  • Shoot Him, He Has a Wallet!: Repeatedly discussed and played with. The Caller tells Stu not to do anything that could be interpreted as a hostile action in front of the police, noting that "you can be shot forty-one times just for pulling out your wallet" (referencing the Amadou Diallo shooting). Stu almost does this accidentally when he tries to take his cellphone and cigarettes out of his pocket to prove that he doesn't have a gun. Eventually, the Caller tries to invoke this trope to get Stu to commit inadvertent Suicide by Cop.
  • Soft-Spoken Sadist: The Caller rarely rises his voice.
  • Split Screen
  • Suicide by Cop: The cops suspect Stu of attempting this, and actively seek to defy it. Of course they're Wrong Genre Savvy as Stu doesn't want to commit suicide, he's being held hostage. The Caller also tries to trick Stu into inadvertently committing this more than once.
  • Take Me Instead
  • Technology Marches On: Acknowledged in-universe in regards to the booth. During the forty years that the script went through Development Hell, phone booths became obsolete. The film says it's "one of the few remaining phone booths [as opposed to kiosks] left in the city", and the reason Stu uses it is because he's a married man cheating on his wife using it to call his mistress, and his wife checks his cellphone records. Other minor examples - the cellphones are period-appropriate, and the opening narration observes that an estimated 3 million New Yorkers are cellphone users (one wonders how many there are by 2014).
  • Trailers Always Spoil: Averted. They went out of their way NOT to acknowledge that Kiefer Sutherland is the Caller, but when the movie came out to video and DVD, they slapped the actor's face and name on the cover front and center. This was probably due to his role on 24 both times.
    • At the same time, it was pretty hard to hide who was playing the Caller in any case, as Kiefer Sutherland has a very distinctive voice.
    • Still, having the obvious villain's face on the cover in a film where the major fake-out is that the killer is staged is kind of a giveaway.
  • Villainous Breakdown: The caller fakes one for a few minutes when Stu won't speak to him.
    The Caller: I'm kidding. I had a very happy childhood.
    • He has another one near the end that might not have been an act. However, he had to have been referring to the pizza guy when he has to "take someone down with [him]", and not Kelly like he was threatening to Stu. He keeps everyone in the dark about holding the pizza guy hostage in secret the entire time to distract the police from him.

"Doesn't it?"
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