Mr. Harrigan’s Phone (now on Netflix) begs the question: Are there any Stephen King stories left to adapt? I know the answer to that – an emphatic no – but King is so prolific, at this point it’s starting to feel like a rhetorical question. So the 39th film adaptation (give or take; are we counting TV movies, or both movies spawned from a thousand-page novel, or short films, or, or, or…) of his work springs from a 2020 novella about a kid, an old man and a haunted cell phone, written and directed by old pro John Lee Hancock, whose last movie, serial-killer drama The Little Things, was good enough to make us almost forgive the icky uberschmaltz that was The Blind Side. So he’s got the King of Horror on his side and a rock-solid lead in young Jaeden Martell; let’s see if they can churn up a little suspense.
The Gist: Craig experienced death at too young an age. He was just a kid (Colin O’Brien) when his mother fell ill and died – and still just a kid when he read a bible passage in church and caught the ear of Mr. Harrigan (Donald Sutherland). The old man is a lonely billionaire whose eyesight was failing and offered to pay young Craig to read to him. Craig saw it as an opportunity to “get out of a lonely house” where he and his father (Joe Tippett) exist sadly and quietly – and, as it turns out, go to someone else’s lonely house where people exist sadly and quietly. So for years, Craig dropped by Mr. Harrigan’s massive gothic manse to read him “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” “Heart of Darkness” and other classics, making a piddly five bucks an hour, and getting a single scratch-off lottery ticket in a card for his birthday and Christmas. Bah! Whether Craig read him “A Christmas Carol” or not is uncertain, but I think we see something of a parallel here, right?
Now Craig is a teenager (Martell) just starting high school. It’s 2007, and the school is divided into the dorks with flip phones and the cool kids with the brand-new first-edition iPhone. Craig doesn’t even have a phone, but at least he has a bully (Cyrus Arnold), so at least he doesn’t have nothing, right? Mr. Harrigan point-blank asks Craig why he keeps coming and reading, and his heartfelt reply – because he enjoys it – melts a little of Mr. Harrigan’s icy facade, which is a decidedly mixed bag. The old man shows some affection for the kid, but also shows some of his cruel, ruthless true self – the kind of cruel ruthlessness that made him a billionaire. Note that the cruel ruthlessness isn’t directed at Craig, but via advice for Craig, after he opens up and talks about how he feels powerless in the face of his behemoth tormentor at school.
Meanwhile, Craig gets an iPhone from his dad for Christmas, and another lottery ticket from Mr. Harrigan, which nets the kid $3,000. He puts most of the cash in his college fund, but uses a piece of it to buy Mr. Harrigan an iPhone. He refuses the gift at first, but then learns he can check his stock portfolio and read the news in real time, and before you know it, Mr. Harrigan is scrolling away while Craig orates Dostoevsky. Now before you point out that Mr. Harrigan’s eyesight was poor enough that he struggled to read books but apparently is OK enough to read his phone, let it be known that it’s all moot because the cranky codger kicks it. He was about 90 million years old and on oxygen, and who finds him slumped and lifeless in his chair with his phone in his hand but poor Craig. The kid’s heartbroken. Mr. Harrigan was a miser, but he was kind to the kid – and a friend.
At the funeral, Craig says his goodbyes and tucks Mr. Harrigan’s precious iPhone in the coffin with him and watches as he’s buried and wouldn’t you know it, a short while later, Craig gets a strange text from – no, not a spammer, but Mr. Harrigan’s phone. His account must’ve been hacked, which is a totally logical explanation, unless you realize this is a Stephen King story. But things aren’t adding up quite right, especially once Craig starts leaving the old man confessional voicemails in an act of psychological therapy that soon becomes – well, no spoilers, but it becomes something else entirely.
What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: King has explored a similar old-man-befriends-young-kid story before in Apt Pupil, except the old man is a former Nazi in exile.
Performance Worth Watching: Martell has been in a masterpiece (Knives Out) and a disasterpiece (The Book of Henry), and Mr. Harrigan’s Phone is somewhere in-between, made slightly better by its lead’s ability to tap into the melancholy soul of a character who’s spent a little too much time with death for someone his age.
Memorable Dialogue: Craig no-shit-sherlocks this one: “In the 21st century, I think our phones are how we’re wedded to the world. If so, it’s probably a bad marriage.”
Sex and Skin: None.
Our Take: Mr. Harrigan’s Phone has no shortage of intriguing atmospherics – crisp Maine weather, low-angle sunshine, ominous churches, an eerily calm manor best preceded with the words “ye olde.” It draws us into its gloomy reality and “rewards” us with a maudlin exercise in coming-of-age tropes, sinister supernatural vaguenesses and a flat-on-the-nose anti-tech screed. When Mr. Harrigan learns the capabilities of his iPhone, he quickly predicts the downfall of the old ways – the death of the newspaper, the rise of fake news, social insularity, etc. – and we can’t help but roll our eyes. He nailed it perfectly! What a smart man. A real Nostradamus here. It’s as if Hancock (and/or King) wrote all this in hindsight or something.
Meanwhile, Craig goes to a school dance and bonds with a teacher (a grossly underused Kirby Howell-Baptiste), he sends and receives messages from Hell or Heck or the Great Beyond or whatever, and learns that having the digital world in our pockets is bringing Hell or Heck or the Great Beyond or whatever to us here on Earth. This sounds more intriguing on paper than in execution, where Hancock renders it a dramatically flat trip to Downersville. I’m all for a ruminative mood piece, and Martell and Sutherland share a subtly compelling dynamic – the pain behind Craig’s eyes, the secrets behind Mr. Harrigan’s – at the service of a screenplay that tries to deliver chills but only dishes out a case of the dulls. King and Hancock are fishing around in the dark for a metaphor and coming up empty-handed; they never fully flesh out the idea that new-school tech is an old-school demon.
Our Call: SKIP IT. Mr. Harrigan’s Phone visually rich and textured, but narratively, it sputters and stalls and rolls into the ditch, like a handsome vintage roadster with a clunker’s engine under the hood.
John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Read more of his work at johnserbaatlarge.com.