Review: ‘The Black Phone’ is Stunning But Needs More

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Scott Derrickson’s The Black Phone is the fastest movie I’ve ever seen. Written by Derrickson and his longtime creative partner C. Robert Cargill, The Black Phone is adapted from a Joe Hill short story of the same name. The runtime and efficiency of the story are enough to make this movie worth seeing, but on top of that it’s given a killer villain performance by Ethan Hawke and that classic Derrickson grime to really make your skin crawl.

The Black Phone is fast but engaging

At only 100 minutes, you already know that this film is going to be an easy watch going in. In addition, The Black Phone is so engaging, and moves at such a perfect pace, that I was actually shocked when it came to an end.

I was looking around the theater, and shifting in my seat, waiting for the tides to shift once more and for our hero to once again have to find their way out of a predicament. But no. This movie is just THAT breezy. I think I could’ve turned around and watched it again and had just as good of a time.

I think that’s largely due to the writing of this movie. Derrickson and Cargill did a really great job stretching the story out to feature-length. It all felt so naturally integrated that, as someone who hasn’t read the short story, I’m not sure I could point to where the short story stops and the movie’s added bits begin. The film itself feels like a short story, with the quickest 100-minute runtime I’ve ever experienced. 

But The Black Phone’s origin as a short story has its pitfalls. While the padding added to stretch out the runtime is organic enough to be unrecognizable, the film failed to move beyond the confines of a short story’s themes. Short stories, by definition, have to be short. A result of that is often that the themes of a short story will be not only surface level but right in your face. That typically works for a short story, but not so much for a movie.

All The Black Phone has to offer is the good old-fashioned “stand up for yourself, champ.” I assume that remains the same for the original story, and that the writing duo didn’t feel the need to expound upon that at all.

While The Black Phone remains a fast and enjoyable ride, the lack of depth here leaves it feeling a little thin. As the climax of the film began to kick in, I found myself reaching for any and everything to find something deeper to latch onto. Hopefully on the inevitable rewatch I’ll discover something I didn’t see before.

Ethan Hawke as The Grabber in The Black Phone, directed by Scott Derrickson
Ethan Hawke as The Grabber in The Black Phone. (Universal)

Not so much a strike against the film, but just something I noticed. There’s not really much to know about The Grabber (played by Ethan Hawke). Once again, it’s something that seems to be a result of the story’s origin as a short story. But here, in a feature film, you’re left with nothing but a brilliant performance for a deeply interesting character.

The Grabber serves as nothing more than a two-dimensional obstacle for our main character to go up against. But, that’s not what the story dictated. Regardless, Ethan Hawke delivers excellence every second he’s on screen.

Final Thoughts on The Black Phone

The lack of complexity and depth in the story and characters is something that reverberates throughout the entire runtime. The Grabber is given an interesting counterpart with the father of our main character, but by the end, it serves as nothing but an eyebrow-raising parallel.

As good as the movie is, this all leaves the story feeling like there’s a piece missing. As if there could be one last narrative element floating around that could be stuck into the film that would make it truly perfect.

But, The Black Phone really does end up being a good time. Sure, it’s not perfect and it comes up short in a few parts. But it’s the fastest movie I’ve ever sat through and a good time to boot. If nothing else, watch for the incredible performances from the cast. Ethan Hawke, Mason Thames, and Madeleine McGraw are excellent. 

My rating for this film: 

★★★★/ ♥♥♥♥½

The Black Phone is in theaters now. What did you think of The Black Phone? Was it all you ever imagined or did it come up short? Let us know in the comments or on social media!

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I love movies and shows and things. I like to write about them. It is fun.
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