The Night Listener
Stars: Toni Collette, Robin Williams
Director: Patrick Stettner
**** (out of five)
Based on the somewhat autobiographical novel by Armistead Maupin, The Night Listener is the story of an author and radio storyteller who becomes obsessed with meeting the teenage author of a disturbing memoir. And then things get creepy.
The author is Gabriel Noone, who’s not dealing too well with what looks like the end of a long-term relationship with his lover (Bobby Cannavale); creatively burnt out and looking for something to fill his time, he develops a telephone friendship with the sickly young writer’s fiercely protective foster mother (Toni Collette), which leads to ... well, let’s say culture watchers might notice some resonance with the controversy surrounding the author J.T. Leroy, and leave it at that.
The Night Listener is a thriller without any actual thrills, per se, but director Patrick Stettner — who co-wrote the script with Maupin and Terry Anderson — invests the film with an atmosphere of encroaching menace that becomes absolutely unnerving over its spare 80-minute running time.
Ultimately, this is a story about two people so desperate to make a connection that they’ve lost all sense of proportion, though Stettner is smart enough not to push the duality card too insistently; the characters’ similarities pretty much end there.
The performances are uniformly strong; Williams comes off best, since he’s the centre of the piece and since there’s not a trace of the desperation that cloaked him like a death-shroud in RV, but Collette and Cannavale are just as strong, creating real and complicated characters — in Collette’s case, astonishingly complicated — in relative slivers of screen time.
This is the kind of small, intimate character study that’s too often dismissed as a “mood piece” by people who really should know better — as though the movies aren’t capable of constructing emotional portraits as incisive and gripping as, say, the printed word. But of course they are.