An eerie meditation on our relationship with technology, leave it to Stephen King to craft an interesting, unconventional narrative tackling death head-on. Though it may be rated PG-13, Mr. Harrigan’s Phone has some bite by way of its creepy staying power, and thrall over the viewer. Superproducers Jason Blum and Ryan Murphy work with writer/director John Lee Hancock (The Founder, The Blind Side) to focus on coming-of-age drama and life’s big questions over goopy, extravagant horror. Narration from our lead, Craig (Jaeden Martell, Stephen King’s It, The Lodge), constantly keeps us in his headspace. A dash of the supernatural brings King’s short story to life amidst the stylish, haunting shades of realism.
We first meet these characters in 2003 Harlow, Maine, wherein a young Craig (Colin O’Brien) connects with elderly Mr. Harrigan (Donald Sutherland, The Hunger Games, Swimming with Sharks) after the boy catches his eye during church service. The richest man in Maine and an apparent billionaire, Harrigan’s eyesight is beginning to fail him. He hires little Craig for $5 an hour to read books to him at his mansion. Inside, the home’s style is old and elegant, but nevertheless, connecting with Harrigan is a highlight of the week for Craig each time he sits in Harrigan’s study. Both Craig and his father (Joe Tippett, Rise, Mare of Easttown) are still recovering from his mother’s death, and Harrigan seems to give the boy a newfound sense of purpose.
The film flashes forward five years, and Craig (now played by Martell) is more entwined in the world of Mr. Harrigan than ever. Each time they sit together—three times a week, to be precise—we are given the title of whatever book they are reading, from Lady Chatterly’s Lover to Dombey & Son and beyond. Harrigan gifts Craig with numerous lottery tickets on special occasions, yet none of them appear to be winners. As Craig starts his first day of high school, he immediately realizes that without owning a cell phone, he exists on the fringes of new societal norms. He begs his father for a phone to help him fit in. At school, an annoying bully simply refuses to leave Craig alone. When Christmas rolls around, Harrigan’s gift winds up being a lottery ticket that earns Craig a cool four thousand dollars, while his dad finally gifts Craig with a brand-new iPhone! Of course, having a phone for the first time opens up a whole new can of worms that Craig’s teenage brain may barely be able to comprehend.
While many people take advantage of the opportunities that having a cellular device at one’s fingertips provide, rarely do we actually take a moment to appreciate the many conveniences and necessities that phones help us with in the modern age. King explores not only what this means for Craig, but also how Harrigan reacts to this noteworthy shift—using part of his lottery winnings, Craig buys Harrigan a phone, too! Initially resistant, Harrigan embraces the idea the more Craig makes it seem appealing. With the world at one’s fingertips, what could be better? Their meetings suddenly evolve a bit. Now, each time Craig comes to read a book, he also introduces Harrigan to new features on his phone. When Harrigan has a breakdown about what this could mean for spreading false information and fake news, he basically predicts where the technology has taken us to in this era of instant-reactions and quick cancellations.
The crux of the tale does not unfold until the moment Craig walks into a mostly-empty mansion and discovers Harrigan’s dead body, clinging tightly to his phone. My heart broke for Craig, as he must experience the second major loss in his young life. In the throes of his grieving, Craig texts Harrigan one final time, saying that he will miss their conversations as tears slide down his cheeks. Craig leaves Harrigan’s cell phone in the pocket of his jacket at the viewing of the body, delivering it to its final resting place. After the funeral, Craig is told that he will be hearing from lawyers in a couple weeks, and is given a final letter to him from Harrigan. A chill went down my spine, as Craig reads Harrigan’s final words, which include that Harrigan will “miss their conversations, too.” Bizarre indeed, considering that Craig only texted Harrigan this after he had passed on. Soon enough, cryptic texts come through from Harrigan’s handle, “pirate king.”
Tying technology into the film along with a dash of supernatural horror, John Lee Hancock was certainly not the first choice of director I would have envisioned for this project. However, Hancock does an exceptional job of sprucing up what already existed on the page. Craig and Harrigan’s friendship may seem a bit weird, but the kindly rich grandfather vibe present in King’s text is pushed to new heights in cinematic form. Sutherland and Martell play off one another well as they chew through contemplative, layered dialogue. As Craig approaches big high school moments like a first dance, college applications, and eventually college, the mysteries surrounding Mr. Harrigan’s otherworldly connection loom large.
Those coming for only the horror element may leave a bit disappointed, mainly because Mr. Harrigan’s Phone never manages to go full-tilt stereotypical scary. However, I personally became very invested in Craig thanks to Jaeden Martell’s immersive, charismatic performance, and King’s potent commentary. Our phones are what tie us into the world of today, so what happens when they follow us to our afterlife? The concept personally chilled me to the bone, and made me reflect on my own relationship with cell phones. The next time anyone close to me dies, their number is respectfully getting blocked.
Mr. Harrigan’s Phone rings for audiences around the world to answer when it debuts exclusively to Netflix on Wednesday, October 5th.