‘Inspired by true events’ runs the opening caption of The Night Listener, after its kaleidoscopic, unsettling credits have set the tone for an eerie little yarn about the power of story. Truth is in the eye of the beholder.
“This isn’t one of your stories,” says a publishing pal of Gabriel (Williams), insisting he read the harrowing memories of 14-year-old Pete (Culkin), a victim of sexual abuse and impending AIDS-induced death. “‘A diary of transcendent hope and courage...’” snorts Gabe. “Oh, please, does it come with aromatherapy?” But he’s affected by the book and enjoys long-distance chats with the foulmouthed child and his adoptive mother (Toni Collette), finding solace in the friendship while breaking up with Jess (Bobby Cannavale), the partner who for the past decade has often been the subject of his on-air story-telling.
Having mastered ‘creepy’ in Insomnia and One Hour Photo, Williams here delivers ‘mournful’ with unmannered ease, in keeping with the theory that miserable is the emotional default of most really funny stars (Steve Martin, Bill Murray). The sometime stand-up may relate to the idea of plundering your own experiences for look-at-me material; actors enjoy being the centre of attention, and Gabriel is quite prepared to loot his own life for the sake of compelling airtime. In his own way, he’s as troubled as the movie’s villain. It’s this mirroring which gives the film resonance, even as its tall tale, based on the experiences of novelist Armistead Maupin, begins to tumble.
Director Patrick Stettner (see page 78) manages Hitchcock’s trick of keeping the atmosphere so compelling, plausibility problems can be ignored, with the sense of encroaching dread impressively oppressive. The Night Listener has been tagged “the new Sixth Sense” by, er, us, but it’s not as reassuring as Shyamalan’s polished ghost story. In the confessional culture, we are haunted by a spectre we can’t escape: ourselves.