I love Ethan Hawke’s wrinkles. For each film they become more (no botox here not), the week a little deeper and he as an actor slightly better. An incomparable movie face.
So, why would a director want to hide it with a mask? Deprive the audience of such an existentially thrilling mirror surface?
Fortunately, Hawke’s voice has also become fantastic over the years. Neurotically fragile and worn, at least as aged and recognizable as the face. If director Scott Derrickson used Hawke as a progressive writer’s hero in “Sinister” (2012), he is used in “The Black Phone” as a strong character attraction. The model is a short story by Joe Hill, who, like his grandfather Stephen King, writes with more heart than brain.
The scene is late 1970s Denver, portrayed by a wonderfully inviting, nostalgic autumn filter. Not even when the nerdy protagonist Finney (Mason Thames) goes beating can you let go of the feeling of coziness, but the sweet idyll of the past is crushed when a black van makes its entrance. In an atmospheric title sequence, lost children’s posters, abandoned bicycles, discarded shoes, black balloons are glimpsed… A parent’s nightmare in grainy Super 8 images.
The originator of darkness is Hawke’s character: the robber (“the grabber” in the original language), a child murderer in a devil’s mask. Finney wakes up in his soundproof basement. Between the host’s nasty visits, a disconnected black phone rings, through which Finney gets in touch with the Robber’s previous victim. Their tips and tricks are sometimes so cryptically worded that they resemble riddles.
With a swaying goal-breaking voice exposes the Robber’s fresh catch to theatrical games. The devil’s mask’s adjustable lower part enables mood swings, from neutral mouthless to sinister smiles and downcast sadness (the mask is designed by the slapstick effect legend Tom Savini, by the way).
If the film is an art of facial expression and the face a window of the soul, which the film theorist Béla Balázs has been talking about, we find here a dirty window that is fitted with bars. As an audience, we know what the killer looks like – what Hawke looks like – so without the slasher genre’s guessing incentive, thoughts go in a psychological direction. What is the Robber’s motive? How are his own thoughts on the carnival identity show?
We will never find out. Maybe just as well – evil usually does better as a mystery than a nut to crack.
Considered claustrophobic fear of survival with a supernatural twist does “The black phone” do the job, but probably the concept feels a bit thin in feature film format. So the excitement is interspersed with the family drama outside the basement. There is Finney’s drowned father and dreamy sister, whose damned gift was inherited from and killed the siblings’ mother. Can the dreams now help the sister find her kidnapped brother?
On Twitter, I recently read that “The black phone” made American viewers literally shit on themselves out of fear. Sure, there are a couple of volume-boosted reasons to jump out of the cinema, but the deepest traces leave things we will never see or hear. The feeling that the worst has been hidden and that the most disgusting thing has taken place.
See more. Three musts with Ethan Hawke: “Reality bites” (1994), “Gattaca” (1997), “First reformed” (2018).