Follow TV Tropes


Film / Phone Booth

Go To

"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 2002 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 and were produced by 20th Century Fox).

Tropes seen in this film:

  • Actually Pretty Funny: The Caller finds some of Stu's insulting comments and general lashing out funny and openly laughs at them, particularly to Leon's girls.
  • Ain't Too Proud to Beg: Stu can transition from cocksure confidence to clear nervousness and 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, though he had other ways to say it). The pimp wasn't exactly a saint either as he attacked Stu with a baseball bat with little provocation, and it might be probable he 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.
  • 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 though he also notes it shows a softer side as he tries to get others out of the line of fire of the Caller.
  • Beleaguered Assistant: Stu has one in Adam although he's slightly nicer to him than others and seems to have some genuine affection for him even before he gets in the phone booth. By the end, Stu outright tells him he is too good to be a publicist.
  • 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 indeed a bad person, a jerk and a dishonest man planning to cheat on his wife behind her back with a woman he lied to about not being married. However, the Caller is miles worse in terms of being a danger, since he targets not only Asshole Victims he thinks deserve to die, but also threatens to murder Stu's wife just to shake Stu up and kills an innocent pizza guy. Such things could stem from him genuinely believing that all people "cause harm", but it's still going too far. 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 makes them look pleasant.
  • 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 is that Stu, an incredibly arrogant man, is forced to confront just how little power he actually has and how pathetic he really is when his veneer of control is stripped from him.
  • 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: 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.
  • Corrupt Corporate Executive: One of the Caller's previous victims was a Wall Street trader who let many people go bankrupt for his own benefit.
  • 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.
  • Dark and Troubled Past: Invoked and subverted by The Caller. He mentions being both a traumatized Vietnam War veteran who was abandoned by his country afterwards and a victim of child abuse. He quickly admits to lying about both.
  • 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, albeit of a much more crueler and more sinister variety than usual. It fits nicely with his sadism and open enjoyment of Stu's suffering.
  • Description Porn: The Caller's description of his rifle.
    "A 30-caliber 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 between irresponsible and an outright 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, who the police think is the sniper, having killed himself to avoid being arrested. He was actually an innocent victim of the real sniper.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: Mocked by The Caller when he admonishes Stu for profanity. The Caller, despite being ruthless with possibly shooting people for being in the wrong place (why might be hinted as being tired of peoples' general lies, such as when, at one point, he points out possible signs of cheating in Stu's benign-acting wife), did retaliate against a couple of serious criminals who apparently had chances to come clean.
  • 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 planned for months to cheat on his wife and who lies to all his clients and his assistant, the Caller is a sadistic, sick Knight Templar who takes people hostage and is willing to kill relatively innocent bystanders if he feels the need.
  • Evil Sounds Deep: The Caller has Kiefer Sutherland's famously deep, menacing voice and puts it to very good use.
  • 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 and serious, with deity-level feelings of grandiosity. Though he takes it to an extreme, he states he is sick of hearing peoples' lies...
  • 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.
  • Hannibal Lecture: Just about everything the Caller says. It's what makes up most of the movie, him being generally easy to compare to Dr. Lecter himself.
  • Here We Go Again!: Another phone booth starts to ring.
  • 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, to the point that Stu will hit the entire alphabet worth of news-casting channels.
  • 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 Lied: When Stu finally admits everything to his wife, in front of dozens of people, and the Caller continues to hold him hostage, Stu despairingly asks why the Caller won't let him go like he said he would. The Caller just cheerfully says he changed his mind.
  • I'm a Man; I Can't Help It: Stu uses this as his excuse as to why he's cheating on his wife.
  • Inferiority Superiority Complex: Stu is eventually forced to admit that his cocky behavior is his way of covering his own deep insecurities.
  • 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 flirting with other women and planning on cheating 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-enough people with only the implication that he cannot stand peoples' lies and such, killed Leon and the pizza delivery guy, made Stu question if not insult Captain Ed Ramey on his failed marriage either For the Evulz or because It Amused Me, judges the so-called experts for not figuring things out faster at one point, among other things.
    • Leon the pimp and the "escorts", who try to outright attack Stu with a baseball bat (possibly with the intent to kill him) just for hogging the phone booth and being somewhat rude.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Stu gradually reveals himself as this by the end, actively begging the Caller to kill him instead of his wife (who he admits he truly does love and is ashamed of planning to cheat on) or Pam (who he points out is a completely innocent bystander who didn't even know he was married when he flirted with her).
  • 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 see him again 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. Stu points out that killing him for cheating on his wife and generally being a jerk is actually wildly disproportionate, which the Caller ignores.
  • Kick the Dog:
    • The Caller gets Stu to spotlight and possibly insult Captain Ed Ramey on his failed marriage just because he found him annoying and doesn’t sympathize with him at all.
    • Stu is also rude and insulting to the pizza delivery guy, mocking him for being overweight which the man was clearly upset by.
  • 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 enough of a 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 and threatening 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 of people 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.
  • Never My Fault: The Caller refuses to accept any responsibility for the people he kills, saying that him shooting Leon was all Stu's fault because he said "yes" when the Caller asked if he wanted to get rid of him (despite Stu pointing out that he didn't ask for the Caller to kill him and that Leon was actively trying to break into the phone booth with a baseball bat in order to drag Stu out, which the Caller would have killed Stu for).
  • 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, though less so, his own assistant.
  • Noble Demon: The Caller might be a sociopathic and sadist Serial Killer but he claims to be 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 careless enough to be considered as a massive jerk to his assistant Adam, but Adam still looks up to him. By the end Stu admits that Adam deserves much better and says that he should find someone better to admire.
  • Not-So-Well-Intentioned Extremist: Zigzagged with The Caller. He sees himself as bringing justice to those who deserve it but it's clear he also enjoys killing and the psychological torment he inflicts on his targets, and targets Stu is more out of a personal dislike than because he's a truly evil person. He gives his victims a chance to redeem themselves and seems to genuinely want them to take it but is quite content to murder them if they don't and initially refuses to let Stu go even after he breaks down and admits to everything the Caller wanted him to. When Stu accuses him of never intending to let him go regardless of what he did, he never outright denies it. He is also willing to harm and frame innocent people for his murders, such as the pizza delivery guy, in pursuit of his goals, saying that everyone has caused harm to others so that no one is truly an innocent bystander. Best summed up his final appearance where he seems sincerely happy that Stu has improved and wishes him well but also menacingly reminds him that he'll be back if he falls back into his old habits and makes it clear he won't be as merciful the next time.
  • 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.
  • Pet the Dog: The Caller attempts to do this by preemptively ordering a pizza to the booth for Stu to have during the ordeal but Stu rudely turns him away.
  • Precision F-Strike: When Stu is confessing he wanted to "sleep with a woman", The Caller intervenes.
    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: Stu is forced to confront his many failings as a person and as a husband and genuinely wants to be better, even planning to sacrifice himself so that no one else will be shot by the Caller. Instead, the police shoot him with a rubber bullet, fooling the Caller long enough for them to storm his location and get Stu safely into an ambulance.
  • Redemption Equals Death: Stu finally admits his wrongdoings to his wife and all of the passers-by, and is shot shortly after in order to save Kelly and Pam. Then it is revealed that it was a rubber bullet, and he's perfectly fine.
  • Redemption Rejection: Invoked by The Caller. He gives each of his targets a chance, if not several, to repent and admit to their crimes. If they don't, he kills them.
  • 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.
  • The Scourge of God: The Caller's previous two victims were a child pornographer and a businessman who made off with a collapsed company's profits, leaving his employees and investors to rot. Stu is by no means a moral person, but he is nowhere near as bad as the previous two victims. The Caller also has no problem shooting people who are at worst mildly unpleasant or threatening totally innocent people.
  • Secret Test of Character: Possibly. The Caller sends a pizza to the phone booth and it's quite likely he used how Stu would treat the delivery guy as a test. Predictably, Stu fails.
  • Serial Killer: The Caller killed other men before catching up with Stu and the ending makes clear he's going to keep doing it.
  • Sharp-Dressed Man: Stu loves his designer clothing and the Caller even compliments him on his suit. Though he eventually forces Stu to admit it's just his own way of feeling like a big shot.
  • 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 if he were a Vietnam War veteran (though it might be hard to tell from only a voice as to being "50" at least in the film's release year).
  • 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 - another potential option.
  • Small Name, Big Ego: Stu, a publicist, carries himself like a big shot but he's nowhere near as powerful or influential as he'd like to claim and is forced to admit as much.
  • Soft-Spoken Sadist: The Caller rarely raises his voice.
  • Split Screen: Used regularly throughout.
  • The Spook: Nothing is known about the Caller. What little personal information he tells Stu, such as being a struggling actor and later a Vietnam veteran and then having a violently abusive childhood, is quickly admitted to be lies made up for his own amusement.
  • 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).
  • The Dog Was the Mastermind: The Caller turns out to be the pizza delivery guy, a minor character from the beginning of the movie. Subverted: turns out that the pizza guy was set up as the culprit by the real Caller.
  • They Look Just Like Everyone Else!: The Caller looks like a perfectly ordinary person who is able to easily blend into a crowd and disappear.
  • Too Dumb to Live: It's fairly reasonable for those hookers to assume that Stu shot their pimp, but it's far less reasonable for them to stand around screaming at someone who they're convinced has a gun and just used it to murder someone right in front of them.
  • 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.
  • Unreliable Narrator: Stu gets most of his information from the Caller, who is proven again and again to be a liar.
  • Unusually Uninteresting Sight: Stu tells The Caller that if he fires off his weapon, it call cause mass panic and police to arrive. The Caller responds to this by shooting a toy on the street and mocking Stu when no one seems to notice.
  • 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 eventually admits its because he doesn't want to be reminded of how much he's failing Kelly. He puts it back on near the end of the film, symbolizing his renewed commitment to her.
  • 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.


Video Example(s):


That Sound is Scary

Source of the page quote. Invoked and discussed by Kiefer Sutherland's sniper character in the film "Phone Booth." As he explains, in the movies, when the good guy is about to kill the bad guy, he cocks his gun. But why would he not have had it cocked already? Because the sound is scary. "It's cool, isn't it?"

How well does it match the trope?

5 (10 votes)

Example of:

Main / DramaticGunCock

Media sources: