This is all Judge Dennis Prince needs, another reason to screen our phone calls because he's paranoid we're not really who we say we are.
Inspired by true events.
In our modern day of virtual reality—not of the gaming sort but of everyday ethereal interaction with others—it's potentially challenging to maintain a sense of organic identity, both within ourselves and in regards to our perceptions and expectations of others. The Night Listener dares to explore a tipping out of balance made possible by an arguably "artificial" relationship, not by way of advanced digital technology but, rather, made possible by the simple analog telephone. The film challenges us, then, by asking how well we know that "friend" on the other end of the line. With this, the assertion of "inspired by true events" becomes immediately unsettling at the outset.
Facts of the Case
Gabriel Noone (Robin Williams, What Dreams May Come) is the subdued radio host of "Noone at Night," an after-hours excursion into the fact-inspired fiction that he reads aloud to whomever might be listening. Struggling over the recent break up between him and his partner of eight years, Jess (Bobby Cannavale, Snakes on a Plane), Noone is intrigued when his publisher presents him with an unsolicited manuscript from a 14-year-old listener. Somewhat flattered that this young boy, Pete Logand (Rory Culkin, Mean Creek) considers himself Noone's biggest fan, Gabriel is taken aback when he reads the boy's account of exposure to sexual deviance at the hands of his parents and relatives. As Pete opens a telephone friendship with Gabriel, it becomes clear that the boy is suffering from AIDS, that being clarified by his adoptive social worker and caregiver, Donna Logand (Toni Collette, Little Miss Sunshine), and his wish is that his manuscript will be published through Gabriel's help. But when Jess happens to speak with both Pete and Donna on the phone, he suggests to Gabriel that the two may be one in the same. Gabriel, offended by his former lover's insensitive and unfounded proclamation, travels to Wisconsin to meet the boy and learn more about the events that prompted the writing of his manuscript.
Without a doubt, The Night Listener benefits from a truly unusual premise that positions it to become a thriller of compelling substance. While we've all become aware of the odd and often predatory personalities that populate the various chat rooms of our Internet society, this film blindsides us with the notion that the same can and perhaps has been occurring via everyday telephone technology. While we wonder if a mysterious caller who could be manifesting multiple personalities is duping Gabriel, we also see that his personal turmoil may make him even more vulnerable to the unclear intentions of the friendly voices he hears through his handset. It's a discomforting situation to we who look on as we find several connection points between ourselves and Gabriel, a rather generic individual who embodies one or more emotional traits common to the rest of us. We see his present vulnerability and compassionate nature leaves him open to be exploited by a needful boy on the phone, so we take pause to assess our own interactions and interrelationships with others, often realizing we know very little about those to whom we divulge our life's details. The active element here, then, besides the potential mystery of Pete and Donna, is the paranoia that we, too, might somehow be susceptible to a similar turn of events.
Although The Night Listener is effective in establishing an uneasy tone suitable to the narrative, it misses several opportunities to further heighten the experience. While I won't divulge too much that could serve as spoilers to the unfolding of the plot, I will say the causal factors that lead to Pete's situation and the motivations behind Donna's actions and behaviors are never explored to much depth. Although the disc doesn't offer much in the way of excised material, the final cut of the film runs a trim 81 minutes that would suggest something substantial was left on the cutting room floor. As we later learn by viewing the extra content here, this seems to not be the case.
As for the acting, it's good to see Robin Williams take on another dramatic and markedly underplayed role. His performance as Gabriel is perfectly subdued and sometimes even bland such that he appears to be the sort of person that most any of us could be or, at the least, could quickly relate to. In effect, this quality draws us into Gabriel's dilemma and helps to heighten the unstable setting. As the film opens, Gabriel is emotionally fragile and barely clings to what coping ability he has left. Here, knowing the usually manic comedian, we immediately wonder if we're getting a glimpse at the clown without his makeup, so to speak. Be this the case or not, it's clear that Willams has a long career ahead of him in the dramatic field, should he so desire.
Following a tepidly received theatrical release in August 2006, The Night Listener comes to DVD in a rather muted offering that might similarly challenge its second-coming acceptance. The image, framed at an anamorphic 1.85:1 ratio, is rather soft and underserving. The picture is consistently lacking in contrast, rendering the color palette as bland and largely nondescript. This also undermines details that should be visible in the black levels, the majority of this dark picture looking rather murky. The audio comes by way of a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix that is clear and intelligible yet does little with the soundstage at its disposal. On the plus side, however, is the fact that composer Peter Nashel's beautifully brooding score is well represented.
After viewing the film, a look at the short featurette, The Night Listener Revealed, confirms the verity of the story's truthful basis. Armistead Maupin, author of the source novel, explains his encounter with the same situation in his life and how his former partner, Terry Anderson, likewise suggested the potential duality of personalities of a boy and his caregiver who had befriended the novelist. To this end, the film takes on an even creepier tone given that what we see in the film seems to have been drawn from a true-to-life case that is still potentially under investigation. The only other extra on the disc is a three-minute deleted scene of Gabriel and Donna in the midst of a confrontation regarding Pete.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Despite its already mentioned shortcomings, The Night Listener is deft in the way it's delivered potentially as one of Noone's own short stories. In essence, it's a novella of a film that plays more like an extended episode of, say, The Twilight Zone. Rod Serling's format for Zone would be to drop viewers into the midst of some unusual or unnatural event, providing enough detail to establish the situation yet purposefully omitting information that effectively keeps the viewer off balance. This film accomplishes the same in that it provides us the experience of, perhaps, having accidentally tuned our radio into "Noone at Night" to learn of the strange events of an ill boy, his caregiver, and the secret that they keep. In this way, we're voyeurs who've stumbled across this situation, a mise en scène, if you will, where the situation at hand has already been underway and where we're challenged to quickly come up to speed to piece together the unusual circumstance in front of us. By this approach, the filmmakers keenly ensure we are not given full disclosure since that would be highly unlikely in a true-to-life situation. Like Gabriel (and Maupin, for that matter), we're challenged to deconstruct what we thought was truth and quickly assemble a corrected view with the few loose ends afforded us. In this disjointed and evolving manner, we, too, are as unaware as is Gabriel.
This doesn't discount the fact that The Night Listener fails to capitalize on its potential. The narrative, however, arguably asserts that its audience will not be afforded the usual ego-centric approach that so tiresomely insists that a full disclosure be given at all times, electing to utilize a refreshing style that would say, "did you catch that and were you paying attention just then?" For this reviewer, this comes as a welcome change of pace to the highly telegraphed storylines that leave us complaining that films have become far too predictable.
While, during its short theatrical run, there was no shortage of detractors calling it a misfire, the fact is that The Night Listener deserves an audience, the sort that is willing to venture into a tale of ambiguity that is as imperfect as life itself. It comes up short from being a thriller of notable accomplishment yet it's thought provoking nevertheless. Listen in and hear for yourself.
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