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Film / Phone Booth

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"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: The Caller lumps Stu's potential planned adultery in with the child pornography and corrupt business deals of former victims. The Caller uses this as one of his methods to torment and humiliate Stu.
    The Caller: You are guilty of inhumanity to your common man.
  • 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's 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.
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  • Batter Up!: Leon uses one to break the glass on the phone booth to get to Stu.
  • Be Careful What You Wish For: As Stu is being beaten by Leon, The Caller asks if he wants to get rid of Leon. When he shoots Leon, he says Stu could have said no. Stu points out that he never asked for him to kill Leon; the Caller chose to loosely interpret his words that way.
  • "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.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Stu's fine, and has learned some valuable lessons, but the Caller pins the whole thing on the pizza guy and gets away.
  • Black-and-Gray Morality: The situation is portrayed this way by The Caller. Stu is portrayed as a bad person, 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 killed 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. Note that we the audience know nothing about Stu except what The Caller tells us about him and how he behaves in a situation that very few people would be able to handle in a way that made them look nice.
  • Blatant Lies: Stu tries to claim that Kelly is a crazy failed actress/stalker and not his wife to get her away from the crime scene and out of The Caller’s sight. No one believes him.
  • 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?"
  • Bowdlerize: Because foul language is actually a plot point at times, certain scenes lose a lot of their impact when the movie is aired on basic cable.
  • Break the Haughty: A main theme of the film.
  • The Cameo: Ben Foster as "Big Q", a No Celebrities Were Harmed spoof of Eminem.
  • Chekhov's Gun:
    • The Caller calls Kelly at one point. As he isn't using the hard-to-trace phone (he is currently on it with Stu) the police have an easier time tracking the line to his location.
    • 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. Less literally, Leon can be seen during the opening, rubbing a hooker's belly.
  • 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.
  • Crazy-Prepared: The Caller really prepared for Stu to be in that phone booth for as long as it takes and made sure he could get away with a scapegoat in place.
  • Creepy Monotone: The Caller, for the most part.
  • 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
  • Description Porn: The Caller's description of his rifle.
    "A 30-calibre bolt-action 700 with a Carbon One modification and a state-of-the-art Hensoldt tactical scope. And it's staring straight at you."
  • 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. Stu even lampshades this near the end of the film.
  • 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: Now... doesn't that just torque your jaws? I love that. 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. It's cool, isn't it?
  • Driven to Suicide: After a while, 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.
  • Evil Laugh: Downplayed, as The Caller switches between this and Giggling Villain over the course of the film.
  • 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.
  • Extremely Short Timespan: The film unfolds more or less in Real Time (with a couple of minor jumps).
  • 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.
  • Gainaxing: Fellicia the hooker when yelling at Stu, in a rare live action example.
  • Hannibal Lecture: Just about everything the Caller says. It's what makes up most of the movie.
  • Here We Go Again!: Another phone booth starts to ring.
  • 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. Then again, the way Leon fell as he walked away would make it initially difficult to determine how he was shot — at first glance it appears Stu shot him In the Back.
  • I Can See You
  • If It Bleeds, It Leads: Referenced by The Caller twice. He points out a tourist with a video camera who would love to film a bloody police shootout and sell it to a TV program. He later mentions the arrival of reporters for Channels 2 and 5.
  • Ignored Expert: Raymond the professional negotiator doesn’t get a chance to be of any use. It is implied that he doesn’t have a good record if Ramey and Cole’s reaction to arrival is any indication and serves as The Load throughout the film.
  • Ignore the Fanservice: One of the escorts tries to entice Stu to get out of the phone booth by showing off her assets. Stu, however, is too busy listening to The Caller talk about his previous victims to notice before she storms off.
  • I'm a Man; I Can't Help It: Stu uses this as his excuse as to why he's cheating on his wife.
  • Insistent Terminology:
    • The skimpily-dressed ladies will have you know they're escorts, not hookers.
    • 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; 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.
    • The Caller, over the course of the film he threatens to kill several innocent people, killed Leon and the pizza delivery guy, made Stu insult Captain Ed Ramey on his failed marriage either For the Evulz or because It Amused Me, among other things.
    • Leon the pimp and the "escorts".
  • 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 disassembled sniper rifle with him, hinting he'll do all of it again somewhere else. Sure enough, another phone booth starts to ring...
  • Karmic Death: The Caller considers his actions this.
  • Kick the Dog: The Caller gets Stu to insult Captain Ed Ramey on his failed marriage just because he found him annoying and doesn’t sympathize with him at all.
  • Knight Templar: The Caller. His targets are usually unrepentant criminals like a child pornographer and 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.
    • It also gives the Caller away when the negotiator sees the red dot on Stu's wife and clues him in on the real depth of the situation.
  • Loophole Abuse: The police cannot listen in on a call between a person and one whom they have legal confidentiality with, like a lawyer or doctor. They can, however, trace the line so long as they don't listen in.
  • Meaningful 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?"
  • 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."
  • Multiple-Choice Past: The Caller repeatedly makes up different stories about his past and current life. None of'em are true as he himself admits.
  • 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.
  • Noble Demon: The Caller might be a sociopathic and sadist Serial Killer but he's shown to be genuine willing to let his targets live if they confess their misdeeds. Which he does with Stu at the end after he finally admits all his wrong doings and decides to be a better man than he was.
  • No Hero to His Valet: Inverted; Stu is a massive jerk to his assistant Adam, but Adam still looks up to him.
  • Pædo Hunt: Invoked. Before Stu, one of the Caller's targets was a child pornographer.
  • Ooh, Me Accent's Slipping: Collin Farrell's natural Irish accent comes through during Stu's confession.
  • 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.
  • 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 shot shortly after. Then it is revealed that it was a rubber bullet, and he's perfectly fine.
  • Ripped from the Headlines: Although the project had been in Development Hell long before that, the final film (which started production around 2000) heavily references the 1999 shooting of Amadou Diallo in New York City, with the Caller bringing up the exact number of bullets being fired on Diallo while accussing the NYPD of being trigger-happy, and Stu saving an African immigrant from being gunned down by the Caller.
  • Sassy Black Woman: Felicia.
  • Serial Killer: The Caller killed 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 raises his voice.
  • Split Screen
  • The Spook: Nothing is known about the Caller.
  • Suicide by Cop: The cops suspect Stu of attempting this, and actively seek to defy it. Of course they're wrong since 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: Said word-for-word by Stu when The Caller threatens Stu's wife.
  • 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 the time you're reading this).
  • Trailers Always Spoil: 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. Though Sutherland has such a distinctive voice, it seems like a moot point.
  • Unnaturally Blue 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).
  • Unreliable Narrator: Stu gets most of his information from the Caller, who is proven again and again to be a liar.
  • Villainous Breakdown: The caller fakes one for a few minutes when Stu won't speak to him, making up a story about having lived through horrible childhood trauma.
    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.
  • Wedding Ring Removal: Stu takes off his wedding ring just before calling Pam, who he intends to have an affair with. He puts it back on near the end of the film.
  • Wham Line: Without even a word spoken. Stu doesn't believe that the Caller has a sniper rifle pointed at him and tells him to go to hell. Cue Dramatic Gun Cock.


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