Thursday, June 24, 2010

Thoughts on "Phone Booth" and Moral Ambiguity

Joel Schumacher is an oft-reviled director. Case in point: he's the guy who put nipples on the batsuit. But, every once in a while, I contend that he's capable of a gem. His Tigerland (introducing Colin Farrell) went almost completely unseen, and is really great. After making that one, he and Farrell decided that they wanted to work together again, and collaborated on the trifling Phone Booth, a thriller co-starring Forest Whitaker, Kiefer Sutherland, Radha Mitchell, and a pre-Cruisian Katie Holmes.

Phone Booth is interesting in several respects. First of all, the entirety of the action takes place guessed it, a phone booth. It's also shot in real time, so when two things that need to be seen are happening at the same time, Schumacher uses a picture-in-picture technique to show us. the 75 minute film depicts 75 minutes in the life of its characters. It's interesting that Kiefer Sutherland showed up in this the year after he started "24." Maybe it was his idea.

Besides the interesting photographic elements, there is a plot element that is appropriate to our ongoing discussions here. I'm not going to concern myself with spoilers, because this movie came out in 2002! Sutherland plays a deranged moralist, bent on showing "bad" people the evil of their ways. He does this by calling them on the phone (while aiming a high-powered rifle at them) and telling them that if they don't admit their mistakes and right their wrongs, he'll kill them. In the course of the narrative, it is revealed that Colin Farrell, our flawed protagonist, is his third target. The first two were a prolific pornographer and a dishonest Wall Street fat cat. Here's where it gets interesting: Farrell protests that his sins are not in the league of these other targets. All he's done is talk on this pay phone every day to a girl (Holmes) who is not his wife (Mitchell). He's invited her to a hotel with the intention of sleeping with her, but she has refused...nothing has happened. "These are my sins?" he protests.

Sutherland asks him, quietly, "How many times have you slept with [Holmes] your head?" Here Sutherland is echoing (the morality, at least, of) Jesus Christ" "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery.' But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart." I once quoted this verse to a friend, who said, "I don't believe that. I believe that Jesus said it, but I don't believe that it's true."

What do YOU think? Is Jesus' black-and-white moral code ridiculous? If it's true, what does it mean for those of us who are "good?" Do you think Jesus said this? Does it seem to jibe with other things he is said to have said? Should people like Colin Farrell, merely considering something like sin, be regarded as equal to people who actually DO the thing? Finally, how does the way in which you answer this question impact your ethics?


  1. morally yes... in divorce court, no.

  2. Exactly right, Dana! That's why theologians talk about a First and Second "use" of the law: The first use is the civil use...of COURSE it's better to think about cheating than to cheat; it can save your marriage. The second use is the theological use...we're all equally guilty under the terribly high bar of perfect morality.


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