The Sleazy Moral Greatness of “Phone Booth”

Last night I watched Phone Booth, the 2003 thriller (brilliantly directed by Joel Schumacher, for real) in which an unseen killer traps Colin Farrell in a public phone booth and makes increasingly painful demands. It’s terrifically intense–I couldn’t look away. The high concept is so great: the man suffering in public, while nobody around him has any idea what he’s going through. Both Farrell and his character are fun (he’s a publicist, rather than a human being) and, by the end, surprisingly convincing.

Victor Morton notes that the killer’s demands begin to turn the phone booth into a very different kind of booth, where high moral drama plays out: the confessional. There are hints of Saw here maybe, avant la lettre, and hints of reality TV, where people abase themselves in public to gain fame, money, or some chance at redemption. There’s a sleazy masochism, which I loved obviously, in which you get the sense that this publicist longed for exposure as much as he feared it. Getting caught can be a relief. It makes public the shame one already felt so intensely behind the silencing wall of the face.

There’s something terrifying in being known: being entirely known, the way God knows us. Phone Booth hits this fear hard, hints at how we long to be known anyway, and shows us what it looks like when someone knows us as God knows us–but refuses to love us as God loves us.

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