Sitting in a New York radio studio, spoken-word artist and writer Gabriel Noone (Robin Williams) starts telling a story … about a story. In a serious personal slump – his long-time boyfriend Jess (Bobby Cannavale) is moving out, he’s writer’s-blocked –his editor (Joe Morton) gives him a manuscript to get his opinion on. It’s called The Blacking Factory, and when Gabriel looks at the subtitle, he’s underwhelmed: “’A diary of transcendent hope and courage’? Oh, please … does it come with aromatherapy?”
But he starts reading it, and he’s hooked. It’s written by Pete, a young boy who’s spent years of his life being sexually abused by his parents and a circle of their friends; Pete’s out of immediate danger, living in seclusion with Donna, the social worker who’s adopted him – but he’s also slowly dying from a case of AIDS that’s being exacerbated by his other injuries and exposures to disease, all at the age of 14. And then Pete (Rory Culkin) and Donna (Toni Collette) call Gabriel to connect, and talk, with the voice they’ve listened to on the radio for so long. …
(More after the jump. ...) Directed by Patrick Stettner – who also is credited as having written a new draft of novelist Armistead Maupin (Tales of the City) and Terry Anderson’s script from Maupin’s original novel – The Night Listener can’t be discussed at too-great length for fear of ruining the effect of the film by revealing too much of it. (However, the film’s debut – and purchase – at Sundance is pretty fortuitously timed set against the backdrop of other literature and pop-culture news of the past few weeks; make of that what you will. …)
Williams underplays nicely here, and Stettner gets great atmospherics out of snowy Wisconsin isolation and rural desolation as Gabriel goes to find Donna so he can meet her and Pete when his compassion and curiosity both come to a head. Collette is a fine screen presence in every film, and here’s no exception. Maupin’s story is also a finely-tuned meditation on how we tell – and how we hear – stories, and the effect that both activities can have on us. The Night Listener isn’t a knock-down, drag-out tour de force, but it works like one of its protagonist’s radio stories – a strand of story strung out into the dark, coaxing us along as it unravels and leading us to think about who we are.
Others on The Night Listener: Kirk Honeycutt of The Hollywood Reporter was intrigued by the film, which he says "bristles with intriguing thoughts about the realm of fiction, how one loves, [and] issues of identity...". Our own Jason Calacanis was also impressed, calling the film "a Hitchcockian version of Shattered Glass." Variety's David Rooney, however, was less interested in a work he calls "tediously solemn," and totally lacking "tension or dramatic structure."