Gabriel Noone (Robin Williams), a respected author and host of a popular radio show, is taking his boyfriend Jess’ (Bobby Cannavale) need ‘for a little space’ poorly. After eight years of living with AIDS, Jess is getting stronger and needs to experience life on his own for a while and not provide material for Gabriel’s radio essays. One day, Gabriel’s publisher Ashe (Joe Morton) hands him a galley for a book they will soon be publishing; he wants Gabriel to read it and provide a blurb. He reluctantly reads the book and finds a powerful autobiography about a boy growing up with pedophile parents. He soon learns the boy, Toby (Rory Culkin) has been adopted by Donna (Toni Collette) and they now live in a rural Minnesota town, to protect him from his mother. Toby calls Gabriel and leaves a message and they begin a phone relationship. After talking to Donna, Gabriel feels he has two new friends. One day, Jess is at the house, helping Gabriel with a fuse, when Toby calls. Gabriel happily introduces them, bringing the two parts of his life together. After the call, Jess tells Gabriel that he thinks both Toby and Donna are the same person. Gabriel doesn’t believe him but the seed of doubt has been planted. Can he accept this? He has a new cause in his life, giving him purpose. Can it be wrong? How can he prove Toby actually exists?
“The Night Listener”, directed by Patrick Stettner and based on a popular book by Armistead Maupin (“Tales of the City”), was inspired by events in Maupin’s life. “Listener” is a very good, well-made psychological thriller.
Stettner takes the time to introduce Gabriel and all of the people in his life before taking us on this strange journey with the writer. This is important because it makes us believe Gabriel is a real person and this makes the more fantastic parts of his journey seem more believable. Stettner slowly and deliberately introduces these elements, providing details to Noone’s life, giving the film a slower pace than most would anticipate in a thriller. But it works. When Gabriel travels to Donna’s home, we both see how Gabriel could become so engrossed in these people he has never met and we see his doubt. It is a nifty trick and it works very well.
As Williams creates Gabriel, you may be amazed at how good he is. Williams turns in his most realistic, yet low key performance which is even more amazing when you consider his last film was the broad family comedy “RV”. As Gabriel, he brings a quiet resign to the character. Years as a celebrity, community icon and living in New York have taken their toll. All of this, and his recent break-up, have beaten him down. He watches events quietly, staring at people, reacting to them, unable to suppress the sigh or the disappointment when everything is too much for him. At one point, Jess invites him to his Christmas party. Arriving at Jess’ new apartment, Gabriel finds it packed with tons of young men and woman, music blaring. He doesn’t have to say anything, but we instantly know this is not the type of environment he would feel comfortable in. It is also easy to see this is one of the reasons Jess needed some space. He never had the opportunity to have this sort of party when he was in a relationship with Gabriel. It is a very, very good performance.
As Toby and Donna enter Gabriel’s life, it seems entirely believable that Gabriel would latch onto them, make them a new project. They essentially become a new purpose for him and renew his vigor for life. Even though he has never met them, Gabriel latches onto Toby’s statement about thinking about girls all the time and secretly sends his new young friend a copy of Playboy because he surmises it must be difficult to get that in rural Wisconsin. Toby becomes the little brother Gabriel never had.
He also fully believes Donna’s stories about Toby’s background, his health and his frequent visits to the hospital. When Donna asks him to visit for Christmas, Gabriel readily accepts. He has become obsessed with his new ‘friends’. Yet, when Donna cancels, citing the doctors’ advice that visitors would only excite Toby’s condition, Jess becomes more skeptical, his attitude fueled by Gabriel’s understanding nature. Because we get to know Gabriel, spending time with him, this behavior seems entirely believable.
An early scene between Gabriel and Jess brilliantly establishes a key aspect of the story. During an argument, Jess asks Gabriel to recount a key moment in their lives. Gabriel remembers it in a more romantic way than it actually happened, adding many details to embellish his ‘writing’. Jess quickly corrects him. This makes it more difficult for us, because we can never fully tell if we are watching Gabriel’s interpretation of events or something as it is actually happening. Are we watching what he wants to happen?
When Gabriel ventures to Wisconsin, he finally tracks down Donna and is surprised to learn she is blind. As Donna, Toni Collette turns in another memorable performance and a performance that is about as different from her work in the recent “Little Miss Sunshine” as you can get. There are many layers to Donna and Gabriel spends a lot of time trying to figure her out. With every move, he only becomes all the more engrossed in the mystery.
Toby sends a picture to Gabriel, which he keeps with him at all times. Yet, as his doubts arise, Gabriel keeps referring to the picture. Can he see Toby? Yes, Donna will take him to the airport the next day? But then they fight, so she says she will never take him to the hospital. Gabriel heads out, checking the hospitals himself. Yet, Donna manages to side step this as well. What is truly amazing about Collette’s performance is that she manages to keep us in the dark as much as Gabriel. She manages to string Gabriel, and us, along as she keeps him away from him.
As the story progresses and we realize the strangeness of her character, she makes it seem believable as well. The key to this is that she is fairly low-key and every time she acts strange, there seems to be a reason for her behavior. Yes, there are brief flashes of anger and occasional outbursts, but she is so intent on providing Gabriel with this persona, that she carefully portrays it, making it work.
Bobby Cannavale is very good as Jess, Gabriel’s former lover and project. He provides a nice counterpoint to Williams’ older character, showing how their fairly typical relationship could go awry. Sandra Oh (“Sideways”, TV’s “Grey’s Anatomy”) has a brief role as Gabriel’s friend and part time accountant, Anna. She provides a bit of help when he is trying to figure things out, providing him with the technical knowledge he lacks.
As the film moves from New York to Wisconsin, Stettner manages to portray both without stereotypes, which is pretty impressive given the fact that he also manages to make the rural settings seem fairly foreign, mysterious and foreboding. As Gabriel decides to investigate whether Toby is real, he travels to Wisconsin and finds a barren, cold, desolate landscape, very unlike the New York he is familiar with. This new setting helps to remove Gabriel from his comfort zone, making the proceedings all the more surreal and unusual.
“The Night Listener” is an effective thriller featuring two very good performances from Williams and Collette.