An intriguing idea that never comes into focus, “The Night Listener” offers glimpse of a rich psychological thriller of which Alfred Hitchcock would be proud, only to be snatched away by a film that never quite comes together. Dripping with darkly lit noir at times and supported by a strong and very moody piano-centric score, various scenes ooze atmosphere and an understated, yet unsettling, sense of apprehension – this in spite of their being no real inherent danger in any of the situations of the story.
Most of the plot is based on a true experience of acclaimed “Tales from the City writer Armistead Maupin, with Williams character a thinly veiled version of the gay author. As a result the film does ring true throughout a lot of its quite short 72 minute runtime, especially some of the interaction scenes Williams has with his ex-lover and friend (two decently underplayed roles by Bobby Cannavale and Sandra Oh).
However maybe it is because it’s a simple mystery, one which can only have one of two outcomes, that much of the film stretches itself to essentially try and steer us away from the logical answer. Unfortunately many of those attempts feel false, and several times the timid nature of our lead stops him from taking actions many of us would take that would quickly cut to the chase and uncover the truth.
It’s a hesitation that could be forgiven if it were ultimately rewarding, but despite bringing up some interesting themes of how people deal with loneliness, the film never pays that off except with one of the silliest and most predictable twist codas this side of “The Village “.
Even the real ‘ending’ as such is unsatisfying, especially for a psychological thriller. Without the 30-second add on the film would’ve remained far more vibrant in one’s memory – not only for the ambiguity, but for the ultimately intimate message it has to say about the personal boundaries we all set.
The film thankfully isn’t as reliant on its central mystery as a sticking point for its enjoyment, but not helping are some other factors such as Williams delivering a serviceable but somewhat flat one-note performance. Collette is effectively chilling at times, but surprisingly stumbles at other points including an almost vampish starlet routine in her final two scenes.
The low-tech production values help enhance the moodiness of some scenes, most notably Williams breaking into Collette’s house and the final hotel scene, but often betray the indie background of the film. Peter Nashel’s eerie score sails above it all, making the whole film like a trip into a dark forest and enhancing many scenes far more than they deserve.
With there ultimately being little point to the whole endeavour, and an ending that will leave many betrayed, the film will no doubt be dismissed outright. Much of it deserves to be, but there’s seeds of greatness here, a story that in better hands both in front of and behind the camera could’ve yielded a classic. A wasted opportunity unfortunately.