|The Night Listener (2006)
Starring: Robin Williams, Toni Collette, Sandra Oh, Rory Culkin
Director: Patrick Stettner
If you’ve been keeping track, there hasn’t been any shortage of bad reviews of “The Night Listener” popping up in the media. Some have been positive but for the most part the film seems to have left a bad taste in mouths of critics. Well, if these reviews keep you from seeing this film then thank them for sparing you the nightmares this utterly terrifying Hitchcockian thriller will invoke. The movie has its flaws, but one thing it does effectively is create a nearly unbearable amount of suspense that will leave you squirming in your seat.
Based on an autobiographical novel by Armistead Maupin, and adapted for the screen in part by the author, “The Night Listener” revolves around radio show host Gabriel Noone (Robin Williams) and a telephone relationship he forms with 14-year-old Pete Logand (Rory Culkin) and the boy’s blind caretaker Donna (Toni Collette). The three meet after Gabriel is given a manuscript supposedly written by Pete detailing sexual abuses he was subjected to as a child. The relationship grows into a friendship as Gabriel comforts Pete after learning the teen is dying of AIDS, but when doubts begin to form over whether Pete actually exists, Gabriel begins searching for the truth.
The fact that this story is based on events that actually happened makes the “The Night Listener” all the more frightening and disturbing. As Gabriel’s search for Pete takes him to middle-of-nowhere Wisconsin, the film provides moments of such spine-tingling intensity that you’ll wonder how you got yourself into the situation of seeing the film at all. Credit for this suspense should go in part to director Patrick Stettner for concocting an atmosphere of overwhelming dread, but it is Collette’s brilliantly eerie performance that most leaves you unsettled. The actress pulls off Donna’s vapid blind stare with bone chilling effectiveness.
Collette’s performance aside, however, you’ll find the rest of this film’s talented cast is grossly underused. Rory Culkin (“Mean Creek,” “Signs”), perhaps the most talented young actor of his generation, only appears in a couple scenes early on in the film, and Sandra Oh (“Sideways,” “Grey’s Anatomy”) barely makes her presence known. Even Robin Williams, despite a richly nuanced performance, comes off a bit constrained as Gabriel, another role in his continuing effort to make people forget about Mork.
“The Night Listener” also suffers from clichés common to the genre. Most notably: the ending that need not be. What for an hour and a half is an effective journey of frightening character study and agonizing unknowns is nearly squandered by a misguided attempt by the filmmakers to provide a conclusive ending that is based solely on conjecture. It is a momentary blemish on an otherwise perversely enjoyable film that, for the most part, leaves you as satisfied as it does disquieted.
The single-disc release of “The Night Listener” features a short making-of featurette (discussing how the story was brought to the big screen, as well as an in-depth look at the movie's plot twists) and one (yes, one) deleted scene between Williams and Collette. Not a whole lot going on here.