Still licking the wounds of a recently-ended long-term relationship with Jess (Bobby Cannavale), radio show host Gabriel Noone (Robin Williams) clings to the embellished true-life stories he weaves every night and the desire to touch his listeners' lives. One such devotee, a terminally ill 14-year-old named Pete D. Logand (Rory Culkin), seeks Gabriel out, first through letters he writes to their shared book publisherthey have just recently agreed to publish Pete's autobiographyand then over the phone. As their trust and long-distance friendship grows, Pete confides in Gabriel about his sad childhood of sexual abuse. In turn, Gabriel also becomes close to his legal guardian, Donna (Toni Collette), who keeps him abreast of news about Pete's weakening condition. When an invite is offered for Gabriel to come to Wisconsin and join them for Christmas, he eagerly obliges. Before he goes, though, Donna informs him Pete is back in the hospital and the trip is cancelled. Beginning to suspect that the boy might not even existhis helpful assistant Anna (Sandra Oh) calls attention to the possibility that Donna's and Pete's voices are one and the sameGabriel secretly travels to their sleepy hometown, intent on finding out the truth.
Inspired by real events that formed the novel by Armistead Maupin, "The Night Listener" is a quiet, measured and resolutely unnerving mystery, the type that keeps the viewer guessing while watching it and thinking about its complexities long after it has ended. Directed by Patrick Stettner (2001's "The Business of Strangers") and written by Stettner, Maupin and Terry Anderson, the film also holds the distinction of being one of the year's most assuredly intelligent releases, building layer upon layer to the eerie plot and fascinating characters of Gabriel and Donna without needing to spell things out or reach for obvious emotions.
Its slow-burn but forward-motioning pace sucks the viewer into Gabriel's recently melancholy existence and increasing dedication to Pete, all the while trusting that audiences will be able to pick up on all of the details and unforced inferences that director Stettner throws their way. This is crucial to the picture's success, allowing the watchers to analyze the evidence for themselves and ruminate on several stylistic choices present. For example, when Gabriel and Pete talk over the telephone, Pete's side of the conversation is visualized. When Pete's vocals are heard from Gabriel's perspective, his voice sounds like Donna's, but an octave lower. The initial question becomes, then, what is the purpose of this? Is Stettner subconsciously mixing the actors' voices together to suggest a familial bond, or is Gabriel being toyed with by a single person posing as two.
When Gabriel tracks down the town where Pete and Donna supposedly live, "The Night Listener" psychologically deepens with the palpable suspense and airtight storytelling of the very best cinematic thrillers. The further Gabriel digs, the more endangered his life becomes and the more fearful the viewer gets. There is no physical violence, per se, but the emotional torture brought upon Gabriel as his trust in Pete and Donna is met in return with cruel deception and mounting unanswered questions is more piercing and profound than any stabbing or gunshot ever could. When the film's underlying thematic relevance is ultimately revealed, the outcome spellbinds in a totally different way, portraying a surprisingly logical connective internal tissue that bonds two unlikely strangers. Furthermore, the movie's study of mental illness and irreparable madness, and the impact such things can have on another person, is uncompromisingly handled and inerasably disturbing in its signification.
Robin Williams (2006's "RV
") too often gets lumped in with fellow A-list comic performers, but he is arguably better than all of his peers. Unlike Jim Carrey, Will Ferrell or Adam Sandler, who can never fully free themselves of the baggage of who they are while tackling dramatic roles, Williams' manic persona can disappear the moment he shows up on screen. No two of his serious characters are alikeheck, in 2002 he was able to bring to life three very distinct and differentiated antagonists in "Death to Smoochy
" and "One Hour Photo
"and every one of them is faithfully and faultlessly inhabited. Williams underplays to poignant effect as the introspective Gabriel Noone, a good guy with a big heart and no one to give it to. In wanting to captivate his audience, Gabriel has revised his relationships into throwaway radio foddera career decision that unintentionally led to the demise of his coupledom with ex-boyfriend Jess. When he starts to decipher between the truths and mistruths Donna spins in her life, he is hurt and betrayed. It isn't until later that he discovers this is the very thing they have in common.
As the elusive Donna, Toni Collette (2006's "Little Miss Sunshine
") is equally brilliant in a creepy, multidimensional awards-caliber turn. She isn't written as just some flimsy villainess whose existence is tied solely to the plot, nor does Collette play it that way. In lieu, the chameleon-like actresscertainly one of our best todayconstructs a complicated, captivating and altogether riveting blueprint for who this woman is and what makes her tick. Donna may be a threat to Gabriel, or she may not, and it is the ambiguity of this that is partially responsible for the film's ominous undercurrent. Dependably supporting the two leads are a host of great small performancesSandra Oh (2006's "Hard Candy
"), as Gabriel's sensible assistant Anna; Rory Culkin (2004's "Mean Creek
"), as the mysterious Pete; Bobby Cannavale (2005's "Happy Endings
"), as Gabriel's compassionate ex Jess; and Joe Morton (2005's "Stealth
"), as Gabriel's publisher friend Ashe.
At 82 minutes, "The Night Listener" doesn't have a moment to spare, and the unfussy stability of the screenplay's many componentsthe story, the dialogue, the ensembleensures that the film stays taut and absorbing. An additional few minutes of screen time building up the friendship between Gabriel and Pete would have been welcome in hindsight, but this is a miniscule quibble. With only a handful of scenes, director Patrick Stettner nevertheless rouses a closely-felt kinship between Gabriel and Pete that stays at the forefront of one's mind when Pete disappears and Gabriel seeks to find him. The idea that Pete acts as Gabriel's savior, imbuing him with a newfound sense of hope and purpose, is truthfully explored and persuasive. Whether Pete is or isn't real makes no difference. The importance of the film lies with the psychological game Gabriel becomes an unwanting participant in, and the impact this has on who he is as a person and where it ultimately takes him in his future. Stripped of its point-by-point narrative, "The Night Listener" is principally about two lonely souls, unable to conceive that their lives have any meaning unless they can make a lasting imprint on a forgetful world. When the ending arrives, the haunting spell this notion leaves behind for the viewer is difficult to shake.