Night Listener, The (United States, 2006)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

The Night Listener is an eerie, occasionally disturbing motion picture focused on the differences between perception and reality. The film exists in the gray area separating drama from psychological thriller, although the mood is in many ways more appropriate to the latter than the former, and it doesn't take much of a stretch to apply the word "noir" to what's on hand. While the story doesn't feature any big twists or surprises, it's a tale of gradual revelations as the layers of skin on the central mystery are peeled back. There's a question about how satisfying the ending is. The truth is explained, but unanswered (and perhaps unanswerable) questions remain.

We live in an era when interaction with others is often accomplished from afar. We can develop friendships, sexual relationships, and other kinds of liaisons with individuals we never meet face-to-face. People, especially teenagers, spend hours chatting on-line, often with strangers whose faces they have never seen and whose voices they have never heard. Some - perhaps many - of these anonymous individuals are who they claim to be, but there are others who take refuge behind a false identity. In a time of electronic communication and long-distance interaction, who and what can be accepted at face value? This question underlies the premise of The Night Listener.

Gabriel Noone (Robin Williams) is the host of a New York City-based nighttime radio talk show, "Noone at Night." After reading an unpublished manuscript written by 14-year old Pete Logand (Rory Culkin), Gabriel begins a telephone friendship with the boy. As a child, Pete was sexually abused by his parents and was sold as a prostitute to pedophiles. He contracted syphilis and AIDS, and is dying. His foster mother, Donna (Toni Collette), cares for him by herself. She and Pete have moved to rural Wisconsin to avoid being found by Pete's biological mother, who has thus far eluded the authorities. Over the phone, Gabriel provides empathy and encouragement, even though he is going through a tough time himself. His partner of eight years, Jess (Bobby Cannavale), has recently moved out, leaving Gabriel alone and lonely. Jess, however, is the first one to question the identity of Gabriel's new "friends." After listening to a brief conversation between Gabriel, Donna, and Pete, Jess expresses skepticism about Pete's terminal condition and wonders why the boy and the woman sound alike. Is everything as it seems to be, or is Gabriel the subject of a hoax or a prank? The talk show host decides to travel to Wisconsin to investigate.

Director Patrick Stettner (The Business of Strangers), working from a screenplay co-written by Armistead Maupin (who authored the novel upon which it is based), steeps his movie in darkness and shadow, creating a moody tableau. The Night Listener has an ominous tone; even the few attempts at humor come across as grim. This approach deepens the sense of mystery, and adds to the illusion that this is a "thriller." This is more of a slow cooker than a potboiler. There's some tension and suspense, but little in the way of action, unless you count Gabriel's encounter with a staser wielding Wisconsin cop.

It has been interesting to track Robin Williams' career over the years. He started in the wild and crazy school of comedians, moved into slight, sappy melodramas, and is now showing an affinity for darker material. Williams isn't afraid of unsavory roles, and he plays them well. Put The Night Listener alongside One Hour Photo and Insomnia on his resume. Meanwhile, it's unsurprising to find Toni Collette essaying the mysterious Donna. Collette seems willing and capable of doing almost any part, and the way she portrays this one keeps us guessing. Rory Cukin, Joe Morton, and Sandra Oh provide supporting contributions.

One senses there isn't a large audience for this film, but for those who are intrigued by the premise and buy into the setup, the story is likely to compel and perhaps disturb. The movie is said to be loosely based on actual events, and it's not difficult to accept that something like this could occur in today's world. The Night Listener doesn't tie up all the loose plot threads; in fact, it opens up more with an ambiguous closing scene. The key points are addressed, however, and there's enough closure to limit pangs of frustration. The Night Listener is by no means an example of perfect filmmaking, but it is the kind of movie that stays with you.

Night Listener, The (United States, 2006)

Run Time: 1:28
U.S. Release Date: 2006-08-04
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Situations, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1