The Night Listener
2006Director: Patrick Stettner
Cast: Bobby Cannavale, Toni Collette, Robin Williams
n one scene from The Night Listener, the protagonist illegally sneaks into a pediatric ward. Wind whistles over the soundtrack as the music looms on the verge of a jump scene; the film is clearly about to attempt a scare. Our hero enters a dark room, where a bald child suddenly sits up in terror. But when the child opens his mouth to scream, he emits a horrible, menacing hiss. You’ve got to admire a movie that uses cancer-stricken children (also, blind people!) to create a creepy atmosphere, especially when you can’t tell who is freakier—the intruding man or the demon kid.
A successful radio host, Gabriel Noone (Robin Williams) plunges into despair when his boyfriend (Bobby Cannvale, cast for reasons I shall momentarily reveal) moves out, tired of having their relationship perused for a good story on Gabriel’s show. In the depths of low self-esteem, Gabriel reads the autobiography of fourteen-year-old Pete D. Logand (Rory Culkin). Subtitled “A Transcendent Diary of Hope and Courage,” the book describes horrific exploitation by parents who created pornographic videos of their son. Furthermore, the young author is on his deathbed, his lungs destroyed by syphilis contracted at the age of eight. Clearly, such circumstances warrant a slightly cheesy title.
Inspired by the story, Gabriel develops a telephone relationship with Pete and his foster mother, Donna (Toni Collette). Much to Gabriel’s horror, his friends express cynicism. Why has nobody ever seen Pete? Why does the kid sound suspiciously like his foster mother? Could somebody just want to sell a book? “There’s ways to prove this,” Gabriel responds angrily. Rather than simply requesting documentation, however, the man tracks the child to Wisconsin, where he discovers a blind woman (Collette in opaque contact lenses) raving about secrecy. (Interestingly, the movie precludes the audience from catching on to the hoax until we see Collette in contact lenses and realize that our previous perceptions were filtered through Gabriel’s imagination.)
To its credit, The Night Listener quickly drops the question of the child’s existence and begins to examine the unusual gullibility of its characters. After Gabriel realizes that nobody’s actually seen Pete in his own hometown, only the most naïve audiences will trust the deranged foster mother. Rather than realizing the blatant truth, however, Gabriel roams around creepy houses with clippings of him pasted all over the walls. The explanation for such typical horror movie stupidity: the man appears to be confronting his own psyche. When the ex-boyfriend, Jess, re-enters the picture, he vaguely refers to thinking he was about to die. Apparently, Jess accepted the radio fictions (and the love of Robin Williams, presumably) as a meaningful tribute for his death. This situation mirrors Donna writing the dubious autobiography of a dying child.
The film, however, never explains Jess’s past, elusively hinting at a parallel that never fully coalesces. In a similar instance, when first talking to Gabriel, Pete adopts a slightly sexual tone, refers to Gabriel as a “dick-smoker,” and apologizes for his “dirty fucking mouth.” Gabriel giggles tolerantly (flirtatiously?) and buys the kid a Playboy. Later, Gabriel’s father chastises him, observing that homosexuals destroyed the kid’s life with pornography in the first place. The film repeatedly suggests a connection between homosexuality and pedophilia, but keeps a Shyamalan-style explanatory twist in the subtext, where it belongs.
The Night Listener is based on true events, namely the controversy surrounding the disputed autobiography of Anthony Godby Johnson. However, the film largely ignores this compelling story, preferring instead to gape while Gabriel loses his grip on reality. Although the characters lack psychological depth, their unpredictable behavior is surprisingly satisfying. In one scene, Gabriel waits outside Donna’s motel room while she taps her way past him. As he looms in the shadows, she turns and stares ominously in his direction, her sunglasses obscuring her sightless eyes as the shadows obscure the hidden man. It is a fun moment because, like the first scene in this review, I have no idea which person I’m supposed to be afraid of. I know that one of them will eventually snap and do something truly fucked up, but I don’t know which!
The Night Listener is playing in limited release.