THB #174: The Black Phone
I really didn’t know what to expect when I sat down in a theater to see The Black Phone. I knew that Ethan Hawke was going to be doing something interesting. I knew that this was the film Scott Derrickson ended up doing instead of Dr. Strange 2. I knew the trailer was creepy, so I was attending without my wife or kid.
We find out very quickly that The Grabber is driving around in a black van, grabbing kids. But mostly, we are hanging out with Finney, a 13-year-old with a quirky, but overtly smart sister, Gwen. Finney plays baseball. Finney goes to his boring school. Finney deals with his raging, dangerous father. Finney notices girls. The film feels like it is set in the year or two before Halloween… in the less monied suburbs… with cheap houses on plots of land 3x the size of the houses, cars on cinder blocks, and wide barely-trafficked streets. Finney and Gwen’s world is all in range of a bicycle.
Gwen’s world is wider than her brother’s or her father’s, in that she has some kind of psychic ability, through dreams, which scares her father, who blames his wife’s similar abilities for her death.
But what is fascinating about the movie is that it is played bone dry. It’s not how Stephen King movies have dealt with the supernatural. It’s much more Delores Clairborne, dealing with memory and emotions more than any special power.
Finney and Gwen have a relationship with death, because of their mother. And the town has settled into a kind of gray funk about kids being taken by The Grabber.
Derrickson renders the place and the people and the kids, especially, with the care of a person with a deep love of 70s filmmaking. He and co-screenwriter Robert Cargill let us soak in it (as Madge would… and if you don’t get the reference, you’re too young. Ha ha.) We are in the world of Assault on Precinct 13 or Ode To Billy Joe or Alice Sweet Alice. But without screaming it. It’s the cinematography by Brett Jutkiewicz. It the production design by Patti Podesta. It’s costumer Amy Andrews not going too far. Editor Frédéric Thoraval is one of my favorites since B-13 and on to Promising Young Woman and he has very delicate work to do here.
The town is so small that The Grabber is never too far from home. And Gwen is having dreams that mean something, but she doesn’t know what.
Until it comes closer…
But the film has taken a full act before that happens, all the time dropping hints that we might need to know later on… but without giving us any idea why. The most violent acts of the first act are done by angry men and boys who are not the villains here, no matter how unpleasant to watch them cause damage.
The film reminds me so much of It Follows, in that we are still not sure what is going in after sitting there for half an hour. We know the characters well and we know something is happening. But the rules aren’t clear and the characters aren’t fully committed. (I consider It Follows to be at the very highest level of the genre.)
And then, when The Grabber inevitably grabs our hero, we don’t really know how the puzzle pieces we have been given are going to fit together. Derrickson and Cargill are not going to make it easy on us. They know that we know all the tricks.
They build the tension as they take away options from us, as we are all that boy in the basement. And they don’t overplay the villain, played by Ethan Hawke in a higher vocal tone with all the poetry in his voice that Hawke has brought to the screen when he can forever. He is not a silent killer. He likes to talk. But we don’t know what is real and what is crazy. We don’t know what is real and what is delusion.
And then, the third act. Again… how will all the pieces come together?
I kinda want to see the film with a less polite audience than I saw it with, because there are few movies that call out to the audience to respond, encouraging us to scream out what to do or not to do next as much this.
I’ve heard some people displeased with the information that the film doesn’t give us… even when it’s over. But for me, that is one of the great beauties of this film. It doesn’t do all the work for the audience. It isn’t just a machine to try to get me to jump in my seat (I did, twice.) It doesn’t cheat, but it doesn’t use every string it rolls out. I love that.
It is easy to imagine watching this film every year or twice a year moving forward. It has a purity that gives it power. And for a person my age, a lovely nostalgia.
Ethan Hawke is great and that mask is insane. They will sell hundreds of thousands of them. But it’s not really his movie. It belongs to those kids. And he never tries to steal it. He just delivers this character with creepy clarity. But the movie tells us more about him than he does… which is another choice I really admired.
Jeremy Davies is creepy here. Well done. I kinda miss seeing him as much as we used to see him.
Mason Thames as Finney more than holds his own. But Madeleine McGraw… my god. She was 12 when they made the film and she presents like a grown person who can hold the screen with just that face. She’s been playing the young version of heroines in a bunch of titles and I understand why. She has that Fanning thing, where I can easily imagine her career going for the next 40+ years, getting very famous and respected.
(About half way through, I felt my appetite growing for an adult-minded version of DC’s Wonder Twins, a version of which I gather has been cancelled at Warners. The power of these siblings was mighty, mighty. And if you will excuse me, I am off to watch DePalma’s The Fury again.)
Miguel Cazarez Mora is a standout. And Brady Hepner… what a rush of adreneline! You won’t know these kids this summer if you don’t see the film. And don’t go in looking… but wow… Hepner… don’t know if that is who he is or if he was really smartly directed (or both), but he is seriously memorable in a brief time on screen.
As the movie rolls downhill in the third act, the momentum is perfect. It’s a rollercoaster… click, click, click up the hill… fast down… slowing around the corner as it heads for the next hill… surprising us with a full stop…. and then it’s on again…
You truly don’t know which direction it will go until it’s there.
The movie made me work… made me feel… made me thrilled. I don’t know what more you could ask of a genre film.
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