The Night Listener (review)

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To Shock, or Not to Shock

It’s stylish and classy and beautifully acted and it’s got that ordinary kind of creepiness that suggests that strangeness and horror and nightmares lurk in the most mundane aspects of everyday life and you so want to love, really love The Night Listener, and it so disappoints in the end. Not out of a lack of talent on anyone’s part, for there are some extraordinary names involved here and they’re all at the top of their game, and not out of a lack of ambition, for this “mystery of the heart” does indeed tease suspense from genuine aching need to do good and to be loved. But perhaps, though, it fails — or at least does not entirely succeed — out of a desire to adhere too closely to a based-on-fact story. Perhaps there’s no one and nothing to blame but the march of time and the increasing oddness of the real world, for in the interim between the original publication of the based-on-fact novel The Night Listener is adapted from and the arrival of this movie, the gist of its core mystery has been superceded by events unrelated but even more bizarre than it itself depicts.
I can’t really tell you what those events are, because maybe it’s only me: maybe fewer people are aware of those unrelated-but-odd events than I am and hence those moviegoers will not find, as I did, that where The Night Listener is going becomes increasingly obvious as it gets closer to arriving there, as if it winnows its options down for itself till it gets to a point where it can only resort to one possible outcome, an outcome that cannot help — when the viewer has that certain knowledge of the real world — but feel so preordained as to be banal.

But it’s worth a look anyway, even if I’m not alone in that disappointment, because there are elements worth appreciating beside the simple resolution of the grand mystery. Director Patrick Stettner, who gave us the ordinary horror of The Business of Strangers a few years back, does find the core of what’s uncomfortable and disturbing in Armistead Maupin’s autobiographical novel (Stettner wrote the screenplay with Maupin and Terry Anderson, Maupin’s then-partner who was also involved in the events depicted), and it’s about a loneliness so deep that it drives the Maupin stand-in, Robin Williams’s writer Gabriel Noone, to let himself get suckered into a powerful story, when one might suspect that as a teller of powerful and affecting stories himself, he’d know better. What happens is this: his editor (Joe Morton: Stealth, Paycheck) asks him to vet a manuscript by a horrifically abused teenager, Pete (Rory Culkin: Mean Creek, Signs), and Noone — who’s just been abandoned by his much younger boyfriend (Bobby Cannavale: Happy Endings, Shall We Dance?) — is feeling the need to be needed, and latches onto Pete and his mother, Donna (Toni Collette: In Her Shoes, Connie and Carla), with whom he develops an intense relationship entirely via telephone.

The story could spin away from there in multiple directions, and I’ll leave it for the viewer to discover which way it goes — those less cynical than me may well find it shocking. But even cynics will appreciate how Williams (RV, Robots) is settling into a wonderfully melancholy groove, one so removed from his former wildman comic persona that it deepens how stirring his performance is — here he seems even quieter and more constrained and more collapsing-in-on-himself than he might if we didn’t have images of him bouncing around manically to compare him with. Collette is as extraordinary as she ever is, taking Donna through fierce mood swings that contribute to the suspense — her reactions to Gabriel’s probing friendship can be interpreted in enough different ways that it keeps the film’s options open, at least for a while. The rest of the cast — which also features the fantastic Sandra Oh as a friend of Gabriel’s who helps him navigate the strange situation he finds himself in — balance a tightrope between the always looming absurdity of the tale and an authentic emotionality that reflects Gabriel’s precarious state.

It’s all so good, in fact, that you wish it were better. But it’s hard to see how it might have been, when the truth it insists on heading toward feels like old news.

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