Patrick Stettner’s The Night Listener is a difficult film to assess. It’s a well intentioned, intelligent and always watchable drama, yet is also unsure of what it is, ponderous and ultimately doesn’t fulfill its potential. It’s a good film that has all the ingredients to have been a remarkable one.
Based on Armistead Maupin’s novel of the same name, The Night Listener tells the story of a celebrated radio storyteller Gabriel Noone (Robin Williams) who develops a telephonic friendship with a teenager. Pete, the boy in question, has written a raw recounting of his experiences of extreme sexual abuse. Now near death from AIDS complications, Pete’s dream is to have the manuscript published.
In the midst of a breakup with his boyfriend of eight years, Gabriel finds solace in the long conversations with the boy, but he soon becomes suspicious that something is not right with the boy nor with his foster mother Donna (Toni Collette).
Are the extraordinary tales of serial abuse true or could Gabriel be the victim of an elaborate ruse? To find the truth, he travels to rural Wisconsin to meet Pete and Donna face to face.
The Night Listener is set on exploring the idea that we create stories about your lives and relationships to fit with our particular view of the world. When Gabriel goes to a party thrown by his ex boyfriend he is shocked by the many friends of his former lover that he’d never met before. Does he really know this man? It’s suggested that he partly created the person that he was with for so long – like a character in his stories – not allowing himself to see the real man.
He is accused of doing the same with his relationship with Pete – of not seeing the reality of the situation. Interestingly, the story is based on a similar event that really happened to Maupin, which further adds to our questioning of what is real and what is fiction.
This idea is however never fully developed in the film, which can’t quite decide if it’s a drama or a thriller – especially when Gabriel tries his hand at playing a sleuth by breaking into spooky houses and following people in the dark.
Williams is restrained and effective in his performance as a man in mourning for his dying relationship, while Toni Collette continues to show that she is one of the most remarkable performers in Hollywood today. She manages to be creepy – possibly insane – and pitiful, while remaining entirely believable.
The relationship between Gabriel and his lover Jess (Bobby Cannavale) seems credible, despite the age difference between them. Interestingly, while Pete comes into his life on the verge of death, Gabriel’s HIV positive younger boyfriend is leaving him to live life to the full after new drugs have removed his ‘death sentence’.
The film is almost unwaveringly dour. There’s little humour to be found and I was at times irritated by the overly dark and almost monochrome style in which it was shot (in the midst of winter of course). We get the message that our protagonist is going through a hard time early on but we are also forced to see the world through his bleak and colourless perspective throughout the movie’s running time.
The film could have done with a little more variation in tone and style and the conclusion is unfulfilling, with many leaving the cinema with questions about what they had just seen.
As is evidenced by its dismal performance at the box-office in the US, The Night Listener will never be popular despite the quality and profile of its leads. (It’s also not proven to be a critical success.) The film will leave you feeling unsettled but not particularly enlightened nor especially moved. While an interesting watch, The Night Listener disappoints because it could have been so much more.