A suspense movie where you’re covering your eyes and near-yelling at the screen is doing its job well. The Night Listener is a cunning, mesmerizing thriller that is sure to go down as a classic suspense film. With numerous nods and winks to Hitchcock’s Psycho (along with Dickens and Dante), director Patrick Stettner (The Business Of Strangers) lends an eerie and captivating eye to the novel of the same name by Armistead Maupin.
Gabriel Noone (Robin Williams) is a radio talk-show host who’s going through a tough breakup with his long-term partner Jess (Bobby Cannavale). When a 14-year-old fan, Pete (Rory Culkin), gets in touch with Gabriel he latches on to the teenager’s piteous circumstances and begins an obsessive and curious phone relationship.
Yet Gabriel soon doubts the identity of the boy and his adoptive mother, Donna (Toni Collette), and next thing you know he’s flying off to Wisconsin to find out their true identities. But people get a tad suspicious of a middle-aged gay man flying to meet a 14-year-old sex-abuse victim (go figure) and some pretty tense moments ensue. Drawn into the questionable world of Donna, the film comes to a queasy, revealing end.
The movie is suspenseful to the point where I was girl-screaming, “Get the hell out of there!” at the screen. Williams is very good as a driven, humble Gabriel and Collette is severely creepy as a frumpy, blind (or not?) woman on the brink.
The movie constantly plays around with the reality and fiction barrier. In the opening scene we see Gabriel doing a radio show but the audio we hear is from another conversation, eventually ending with Williams griping, “It doesn’t sound like me!” Similarly, Gabriel suspects Donna and Pete as being the same person because their voices sound so much alike. Director Stettner even had Collette record the same lines as Culkin and mixed up their audio performances in the final mix to add even more confusion.
Gabriel’s angst over his breakup is compelling and makes his obsessive quest for truth almost understandable. But the verity he seeks brings out a myriad of lies from Gabriel himself, pointing out again the imbalance of truth. At one point Donna says to him, “It’s important for me to trust you.” That highlights not only the need for trust in all relationships but specifically Gabriel?s own diminishing honesty.
If the movie itself isn’t enough of a fiction?reality mindfuck, what’s more is that the story is based on actual events from Maupin’s life. Maupin had his own phone fan whilst undergoing his breakup with partner and writer Terry Anderson. The two even worked together again to produce the screenplay. The Night Listener definitely represents a darker, more personal approach to storytelling for Maupin compared to his earlier work with Tales Of The City.
A selection from the Sundance Film Festival this year, The Night Listener also boasts an amazing sound design and score that makes for one scary and intense ride.