Phone Booth (2002): tales of the city and monstrous morality

A solitary phone booth in murky lighting.

When it comes to movies, morals are never far away. So it is with Phone Booth.

The morality play genre was all the rage 500 years ago, give or take a century. Morality tales laid bare the eternal struggle of being good, and the consequences of being bad.

It hardly sounds like the stuff of compelling cinema, and yet journeys of judgement and repentance are everywhere in modern storytelling.

Brash publicist Stu Shepard (Colin Farrell) will do anything to get ahead, including lying, cheating and trading favours with bent coppers. Effective? Yes. Ethical? Hell, no.

That’s not even the worst of it. In between exploiting an unpaid assistant, Stu is trying to bed a beautiful young client. He calls Pam (Katie Holmes) from the same NYC phone booth at the same time every day … so wife Kelly (Radha Mitchell) won’t spot the evidence on his cell phone bills.

So far, so commonplace: he’s hardly the first guy to cheat or use others to get ahead. For Stu, however, the jig is up.

When the phone in the booth rings, Stu picks up – and it turns his life upside down. After shooting one guy dead in the street, the anonymous Caller (Kiefer Sutherland) offers Stu a choice: confess his sins or die the same way. With a maniac on the line, neither option is quite so simple.

Phone Booth and morality tales

In one16th-century morality tale, a weary God in heaven sends Death to summon our guy, “Everyman”. Death accordingly rocks up to tell Everyman it’s time to die (bad enough) and face judgement (much worse).

It’s a rocky road to redemption, though. Everyman has squandered his life, lived immorally, and hasn’t done enough good. It’s only by accepting and repenting his sins that he can finally die in peace and ascend to heaven.

Some 500 years later, writer Larry Cohen describes the genesis of Phone Booth as wanting to tell an entire story in a single location. He even pitched it to Alfred Hitchcock, who already had form with the concept in Rope and Rear Window.

There’s no clue in Cohen’s recollection whether Phone Booth’s Everyman parallels are deliberate or purely coincidental but, either way, there are fascinating echoes.

As in the tale of Everyman, “Death” comes for Stu Shepard,here as an anonymous Caller. Stu must likewise give an account of his life and repent for his sins. Ironically, this leaves him in a more peaceful place (and with a better marriage to boot).

The film also ends with a symbolic death, when Stu is shot, survives, then grows woozy in the back of an ambulance. He doesn’t even get the last word in the film. That goes to the Caller’s voice over – a warning for the rest of us – and a repeat of the film’s opening image, an orbiting satellite.

What’s that, you say? Why yes, space can be synonymous with “the heavens” … and sometimes takes the place of heaven entirely.

Cinema largely offers up secular spirituality, where being good is entirely separate from serious religion. And yet, peel back the layers and we run into the same old stories. But why is that?

Modern morality tales

Phone Booth is far from the only modern “morality tale”. Dilemma movies, as we typically encounter them, similarly hinge on the high stakes of doing the right thing.

In Red Eye a hotel manager must choose between saving her father and letting a stranger die, while The Commuter asks an unemployed man to choose cash over the life of another passenger.

Maybe all cinema plots are simply a series of moral choices. It’s subtler than in dilemma fiction, but the end result is the same: we follow a character’s journey through judgement and into redemption. It’s only when they finally repent and find peace – an improved version of themselves – that they “fade to black”.

Dilemma stories kick this up a notch by making the moral choice a.) really obvious and b.) the heart of the plot. It’s so effective that one dilemma plot has become a story archetype in its own right.

Charles Dickens first had miserly banker Ebeneezer Scrooge choose between wealth and wellbeing in 1843. Not only has A Christmas Carol been adapted for film countless times since, but the story even influences [the creation or our understanding of] many others. The Game, for instance.

There are echoes of A Christmas Carol in Phone Booth’s story of a selfish miser who repents after an encounter with “a ghost” of comeuppance. Perhaps that’s no surprise considering both tales are the same moral discourse.

Either way, our fascination with dilemma stories (and sin) suggests we’re still intrigued by the social and spiritual rules of being good … and how far we can push being bad.

The accidental villain

As the name implies, Everyman represents “any one of us”. Similarly, in Phone Booth, Stu Shepard is just like us.

The Caller singles him out for his sins, but there’s far worse out there. The Caller even acknowledges this when he first executes a porn king child abuser and a greedy corporate executive.

Stu, though, is all fur coat and no knickers: he’s brash and vulgar, with an inflated ego and nothing of substance. He lusts over other women and lies to his wife but, if we believe his confession, never acts on it. He calls it a fantasy to soothe low self esteem … although the phone box is next to the hotel where he wants to meet Pam. Hmm.

So, Stu cheats, lies, is self-absorbed and uses people … but so do lots of folk.

The film underscores this with a clutch of characters also on the take, from the cop who trades privileged info to the journalists who print it. When the sex workers encourage pimp Leon to attack Stu, they play the same game.

In storytelling terms, Stu has to be someone we’re invested in. That’s easier when his ‘sins’ are things we can forgive, or even find in ourselves. No one weeps for the German porn king, after all.

Cynically, perhaps this is the function of the film’s sex workers. They boost the angelic women (Saint Kelly especially) and soften Stu’s sins. Even more cynically: it’s easier to kill a pimp on-screen than, say, a teacher. It’s funny how cinema lays bare our built-in prejudices.

But ultimately, why Stu and not one of the city’s many crazed killers? Well, it’s not personal. It’s not even bad luck. As in Everyman, we’re all due a day of judgement – and sometimes, it’s later than you think.

Punishment or pick-me-up?

Stu’s dilemma is to die in sin or tell the truth – shaming himself and hurting his wife in the process. As it turns out, the outcome isn’t so black and white.

The Caller doesn’t actually mean to spare Stu, but to torture him in the worst possible way (and, by extension, the innocent Kelly). Ironically, his “intervention” instead leads Stu to redemption.

Public confession reveals Stu’s wrongs as a bunch of anxieties and fears – making him more likeable for admitting them.

Rather than judging Stu’s toxic masculinity, the film mitigates it as the burden of the average guy in an unfair world (a bit like Captain Ramey’s tales of psychiatry).

Like a religious catechism, the Caller’s Q&A dialogue then guides Stu into doing the right thing. Self-interest damns him; it’s only when he acts for the benefit of others that he can be saved.

Now, this is interesting because sacrifice is surely one of cinema’s most visited themes. If a purpose of cinema is to show us our better selves (better looking, often), it repeatedly uses motifs of sacrifice to seal the deal.

Anyhoo, Stu ultimately trades his life for Kelly’s. He takes a huge gamble by leaving the booth – arms outstretched in a familiar Jesus-like pose – only for the police to shoot him with a rubber bullet. They save his life. Meh, but technically he saves himself.

Phone box symbolism

Phone Booth’s anonymous Caller is an avenging angel, but it’s a self-serving role.

Like Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle, he calls his own sins justice, when really it’s one more kind of social cleansing or sociopathy. Alongside moral outrage, he even kills because it’s convenient, i.e., Leon and the pizza delivery guy.

The Caller also sets up the story’s intrigue: “You hear a phone ring and it could be anybody. But a ringing phone has to be answered, doesn’t it?”

Of course, this works better in the vanishing era of public payphones and spam-free calls. If nothing else, crime agencies now have far greater means of tracking cellphones and their owners. Heck, there are even apps for it.

As urban history, it’s fascinating, though. From tourists to crime victims, from the poor to the perpetually butter-fingered, public phones have long had a social value beyond profit and loss. That’s matched by their place in our stories, from Superman to The Matrix and more.

Then there’s the phone booth as the original hot desk, a place of business and, sometimes, subterfuge. Low comfort, true, but accessible and, at one point, plentiful. The most colourful were plastered with graffiti, fast food slops and ads for sex services.

Sure, you won’t miss this if you weren’t in the market for it, yet this is the very conflict that catapults Stu into catastrophe. The phone booth is both comms gateway and an office for sex workers and street traders. It’s when Stu won’t share this public resource that things kick off.

Phone Booth marks the passing of an era, and foreshadows an age of escalating private ownership over public good.

But most of all, it presages a mounting tsunami of surveillance, one from which there are no hidden sins, everything can be tracked, and satellites – like the eye of God – see all from space.

Phone Booth (2002), directed by Joel Schumacher

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Picture credit: Marissa Lewis