“‘When the Gods want to punish us, they answer our prayers.’ Oscar Wilde wrote that. We didn’t read that book. Maybe we should have,” Craig (Jaeden Martell) says at the start of Mr. Harrigan’s Phone, based on Stephen King’s short story of the same name. When he was much younger (Colin O’Brien), Craig began reading books to Mr. Harrigan (Donald Sutherland), an ageing billionaire with failing eyesight, for five dollars an hour — a job that felt appealing to a young boy wanting to get out of a house made lonely by the death of his mother prior to the film’s opening.
During his afternoons with Mr. Harrigan, Craig learns to understand what he’s reading through meaningful discussion. When Craig is much older, Mr. Harrigan asks him why he continues to come here because he’s been doing it three days a week for five years now. Is it an obligation? Craig says he enjoys their time together, the smell of his books, and their talks. “I come here because, when I read out loud, it gives me a sense of power that I don’t have outside this room. I come here because I want to.” Mr. Harrigan has been a mentor to Craig, helping to foster his intelligence and critical thought, but he also treats him like an equal and encourages his own unique identity.
As a thank you, Craig gives Mr. Harrigan an iPhone, a gift he refuses at first, quoting Henry David Thoreau, “We don’t own things. Things own us.” Mr. Harrigan fears wasting time. He favours living in the present and connecting with people, as opposed to dissociating through life. Instead, Mr. Harrigan locks his pain away in a secret room he describes as being full of “terrible secrets.” While Mr. Harrigan predicts the future of the internet–fake news, social media, paywalls, spam, and so forth–even he cannot resist the pull of technological addiction.
When Craig finds Mr. Harrigan dead one day, his oxygen tank hissing, it’s an unsettling and upsetting scene. Craig calls his father (Joe Tippett) who phones for an ambulance. “It was the best of times. It was the worst of times,” Craig starts, not knowing what else to do, as he begins reading the iconic opening passage of Charles Dickens’ The Tale of Two Cities, in an emotionally striking scene. Book titles also appear on-screen throughout their readings, which is a nice touch. Soon after Mr. Harrigan is buried, Craig realizes he can still communicate with Mr. Harrigan through his phone, as the film plays out like an updated but strongly subdued version of Death Note.
Executive produced by King, Mr. Harrigan’s Phone was written for the screen, directed by John Lee Hancock, and produced by Ryan Murphy and Jason Blum. King, known for disliking many screen adaptations of his work (such as The Shining), praised the film, calling it “nothing short of brilliant.” The film features narration from Craig throughout, which fits the affecting, autumnal atmosphere and makes it more of an intimate experience. It delivers important information effectively without overstaying its welcome. Mr. Harrigan’s Phone unfolds at a slow pace, and the stakes aren’t very high, but it has strength in its themes and emotion. There’s a lesson somewhere about the “double-edged nature of our relationship with technology,” as Hancock put it. Still, the film is less about scares from beyond the grave and more about how genuine connection can help us heal from the loneliness that comes from loss.
Mr. Harrigan’s Phone premieres on Netflix on October 5
by Toni Stanger