I think the problem with The Night Listener is that it is billed as a thriller. As such, viewers approach it with a specific structure they are expecting. If viewed as a thriller, The Night Listener does not measure up at all (too small a narrative and the pacing does not increase with time as most thrillers do); it measures up a little bit more if you view it as a series of character studies. Unfortunately, that format is better for novels than for movies.
A radio personality, Gabriel Noone (Robin Williams) has relationship problems when a friend and editor, Ashe (Joe Morton) hands him an abuse memoir from a 14 year old boy, Pete Logand (Rory Culkin). The abuse is horrific and while reading the manuscript, Gabriel gets a call from Pete. They develop a relationship over the phone that is partially monitored and encouraged by Pete’s adopted mother, Donna (Toni Collette). Suspicions arise when Gabriel has his boyfriend, who moved out and caused the personal problems that begin the film, engage in a conversation with both Pete and Donna. The boyfriend, Jess (Bobby Cannavale) is convinced that both voices are from the same person. This plants a seed of doubt that cascades from Gabriel to Ashe to the publisher who decides not to publish the book. Following that, Gabriel is unable to get in touch with Pete and goes on a search, leaving Manhattan for the spread out hamlets of Wisconsin. Since it is billed as a thriller, I will not go further as it will spoil the plot.
I was never bored, but I was also not fully engaged in the film. I wanted to empathize with more than one character, but this didn’t happen. The director, Patrick Stettner, who also directed The Business of Strangers, is what I call David Mamet lite. Mr. Stettner is very good at creating a personal tension between two strong willed characters. In so doing, he shows both characters as lacking some quality that would truly make them sympathetic, so when something bad happens to them, it is really hard to care because the assumption is that they get what is coming to them. This makes for an interesting tension that is like modern classical music in many ways: lots of dissonance and no real resolve—when his films are over, you are left with no more answers than when you started, but also with no extra questions. In other words, you are given a glimpse into the minds of two people during a stressful time—by definition this will be dissonant, and if Mr. Stettner doesn’t have a denouement, then there would be no resolve to balance the dissonance. This can leave the audience uncomfortable.
Gabriel Noone is a caretaker type. When he started his relationship with Jess, Jess had full blown AIDS and Gabriel helped usher him from near death, through the drug treatments to a healthy life. Relationships like this are almost always co-dependent and, because of that, seldom end well. Gabriel becomes most vulnerable when Jess leaves him because he has no one to take care of. At this exact moment, he is given a manuscript written by a wounded boy. The caretaker parts of Gabriel’s personality go into hyper-drive (the wounded child motif is something that Hollywood picked up from mountains of literature about the same thing—it is a recurring theme because it automatically pulls heart strings for all but the most callous). Gabriel then becomes obsessed; the question is: what is the kernel of the obsession? The hint is that it isn’t physical. His obsession isn’t Pete, it is for the feelings of being a caretaker. This is also something akin to the heroin/methadone paradigm without the step-down. Methadone is even more addictive than heroin; in Gabriel’s case, taking care of an adult is heroin, but the idea of taking care of a wounded child is methadone. Like any good addict, Gabriel allows his personality to become so engrossed in the drug that he goes to any lengths to get the fix.
Donna’s situation is more difficult to describe because it could give away too much of the end. But this much can be said. She is a social worker who takes on the responsibility of raising Pete officially through adoption. Because his abuse went on for years and was sexual, he has AIDS and previous infections of STD have ruined his lungs. Donna is also a caretaker personality. Social workers who cannot separate work from their heart almost always burn out very fast—the amount of energy it takes to try to care for those whose parents are failing them or harming them is enormous on its own without also letting the energy become a virus that loads down and finally destroys the heart. From the very beginning, then, battle lines are drawn between two junkies and there is not enough of the drug (Pete) to go around. This is what sets up the paradigm that Mr. Stettner seems to like and presents well.
I don’t like Robin Williams. He used to be funny but isn’t any more. Because of years of fop and silly roles, it is difficult to take him seriously even after years of him trying to play serious. However, his interpretation of Gabriel is surprising in its simplicity. I would never think that he could dial his personality down so much as to allow himself to become, for all intents and purposes, a pitiful, lonely older man. I expected to be annoyed by him throughout but was happily surprised.
The main reason I had Netflix send the film to me was Toni Collette; her ability to become nearly anything on film is something I deeply admire and like. Her performance is what you would expect. Once you’ve seen a dozen or so films where one actor or actress shines brightly, you come to expect this of every role. She delivers here as she delivers in nearly every other film with her in it.
What stops this film from failing entirely is the supporting cast. I didn’t mention Sandra Oh earlier, but her relatively brief time on screen raised my eyebrows. I think we all understand that actors know what they’re doing, but some of them have a ability that seems to project that there is no camera anywhere around and they are behaving so naturally it seems like you’re spying. She has done that in every film I’ve seen with her in it (I don’t watch much television, so I cannot speak to her performances on the small screen). The Night Listener is a small movie focused on one item between two people; however, the supporting cast does what a supporting cast should—they help build the tension and foundation of the main story without standing out as being too good or too bad in comparison with the main story line. In that way, this is a thoroughly mature film.
Unfortunately, the story itself is just a wee bit too small to hold all that Mr. Stettner was trying to put into it.
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