How much of what someone thinks is reality can survive the objectivity test? That’s the question posed in THE NIGHT LISTENER, based on a real-life experience and later a novel by Armistead Maupin, which ponders how perception and raw need have a nasty habit superseding everything else. The answer is an engrossing thriller that probes the human psyche and is coy about giving up its secrets too easily.
Robin Williams in one of the best performances of his career plays Gabriel Noone, a radio personality who has used his personal life as fodder for the stories he spins for the cult-like following of his show, “Noone at Night”. That personal life is currently suffering the death-throes of a long-term relationship that is being gently ended by his parter, Jesse (Bobby Canavale). Beyond the personal anguish, his professional life is also suffering as he finds himself without a personal life to plunder for tales for the airwaves and very little in the way of motivation to fix that. As things fall apart, a publisher friend hands Gabriel a manuscript written by a 14-year-old, Pete (Rory Culkin), detailing the horrors of his childhood abuse and the preternaturally mature wisdom it has given him. It came over the transom, he tells Gabriel, and is a work of pure genius, perhaps it will be good for Gabriel to read it. Perhaps it will also be good to talk to Pete, who is living in the midwest in the care of his foster mother Donna (Toni Collette), and on the run from his abusive parents. Indeed it is good for Gabriel to talk to the boy. Pete’s joyous profanity, insights, and most poignantly, his life-threatening health problems take Gabriel out of himself and also feed a paternal need more deeply than he likes to admit. It’s an ideal arrangement until Jess, who has nothing invested in Pete personally or professionally, listens to a voice message from both Pete and Donna that Gabriel plays for him and points out that they sound virtually alike. From there nothing can be taken at face value. The most innocent of remarks takes on sinister or innocuous overtones depending on who is listening and why, evidence either way become evidence of Pete’s existence and of his non—existence, depending on who is judging, ultimately sending Gabriel on a trip to the heartland in search of the truth, or at least the truth that will make him, and the audience, happiest.
Williams takes Gabriel’s neediness, his loss of Jess, his prickly relationship with his father, his longing for some sort of connection with Pete that fuels his belief in the boy’s existence, and turns it into an aggressive weapon. With a haunted look in his eyes, and a determined but resigned smile that longs to be happy again, a body that seems as deflated as his emotions, he sifts through the ruins of Gabriel’s life and finds something noble in his ache. In lesser hands, it would be foolishness, in Williams’, it is a higher aspiration and it is that performance on which the film hinges and triumphs. Collette, with the equally challenging role of chameleon-like Donna also comes through. The wariness that is protective of the boy or of her deception plays equally well as both with Collete never once attempting to make her character anything less than difficult, a formidable and ferocious lioness.
The mystery of THE NIGHT LISTENER deepens with every shadowy frame, abetted by an elegant, edgy mood that works on both conscious and subliminal levels, creating in the viewer the same tension and sense of foreboding Gabriel experiences throughout. Haunting, maddening, and ultimately addressing more than the merely mundane question of who Pete is, this is a powerful little gem as hard-boiled as Hammett, but with the absolute compassion that it summons up for all the tortured creatures on display, it also has the soul of St Francis.