Ethan Hawke Terrorizes 1970s Neighborhood Children in The Black Phone, A Simultaneously Effective and Perplexing Thriller

By Scott Cole

THE BLACK PHONE  –  * * 1/2  (2 1/2 stars out of 5)

Director: Scott Derrickson

Starring: Ethan Hawke, Mason Thames, Madeleine McGraw, Jeremy Davies, James Ransome

A big pet peeve of mine in movies is the character of the small child who talks and acts just like the adults who have written them. I do not mean child characters who are geniuses or savants. I am referring to a normal child who sounds nothing like a kid, instead having an endlessly quippy and sardonic vocabulary that reeks of a writer’s room. Scott Derrickson’s new thriller The Black Phone spends about half of its time with Gwen (Madeleine McGraw), the younger sister of Finney (Mason Thames), and she is a piece of work. She smarts off and curses at police detectives, hits a bully over the head with a rock, and during a prayer includes the line, “What the f**k, Jesus!?” She has endless dialogue that sounds like it came from a comedy workshop, and her character reads as tiresome and annoying.

The Black Phone is a film that gets off to an incredibly wobbly start but manages to mostly right the ship into becoming a thriller that, at times, can be effective and ominous. The setting is North Denver in 1978, and young preteen boys keep disappearing without a trace. Gwen is plagued by very specific dreams of a masked man taking the boys, and detectives question her curiously after one disappearance because her dreams included a specific crime scene detail that was not public. Are her dreams prophetic? Her alcoholic and abusive father (Jeremy Davies) hopes not because his wife (and mother of Gwen and Finney) took her own life as a result of similar visions she had in dreams.

After a few early disappearances at the hands of The Grabber, as the neighborhood children call the kidnapper, things take a dramatic shift when our protagonist Finney finds himself attacked, drugged, and locked in a dungeon-like basement by a creepy man (Ethan Hawke) wearing a complicated mask. Hawke, reuniting with director Derrickson after 2012’s Sinister,  tries his best to imbue The Grabber with a creepy childlike voice and strange behavior. It is a performance that shifts back and forth between threatening and effective to silly and over-the-top. The supernatural element we were introduced to early with Gwen’s dreams gets ramped up even further once Finney discovers that the disconnected black telephone in his cell can actually ring and the voices of the previously murdered children will guide him through his ordeal and possibly help him escape.

Setting the film in 1978 proves to be largely pointless since the children all talk and act like modern kids, save for their clothes, hairstyles, and  a few obvious references to Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Enter the Dragon. But there is an element about The Black Phone that is drab and unsavory: the amount of violence shown towards young people. These kids are not even teenagers yet, but the movie plays on their fear and anguish to keep things interesting. I remember the great critic Gene Siskel used to object to films showing children in peril because he claimed it was a very easy way for a thriller to garner sympathy from an audience.

I understood what he meant while watching The Black Phone because at times experiencing these kids crying, bleeding, and hurt just makes you feel unclean as you watch it. And this begins way before The Grabber’s basement scenes even come into the picture. Very early into the movie we are treated to a violent fight between Finney, Gwen, and their bullies involving intense punches, kicks, and a rock cracking open a kid’s head. Then we get to watch Gwen’s drunken father beat her repeatedly with a belt while in a blind rage while she screams,cries, and pleads. It just didn’t sit well with me at all.

However, once the film settles into becoming a cat-and-mouse thriller with Finney forced to find ways to outsmart The Grabber and escape, Derrickson does focus in and produce some effectively tense and scary moments. It becomes a race against time as Gwen’s dreams begin to become clearer and more specific as to The Grabber’s location, and the voices of the previous abductees on the black phone warn that Finney’s time is running out. Of course, just the voices of the dead kids doesn’t do it so Derrickson makes sure we get ghostly views of the bloodied children giving advice. The Black Phone in many ways feels like a hybrid between the third season of True Detective, Room, and The Sixth Sense. It is impossible to deny that it has some intense and frightening moments, but it feels like the screenplay needed several more drafts to really soar.

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