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RUTHERFORD ON FILM: ‘The Night Listener’: When Truth and Fiction Merge, How Do You Learn What’s Real?

Posted by kinchendavid on August 14, 2006

By Tony Rutherford
Huntington News Network Critic

Huntington, WV  — A bummed out story teller with a national radio show receives a manuscript from a friend that apparently tells a heart wrenching story of how a young teen handled severe abuse. According to the publisher the 14-year-old boy has AIDS, has a new mom, and still hides from his dad.

“He’s a fan, I gave him your number,” the publisher says.

Grappling with his own crumbling relationships, Gabriel (Robin Williams) has lost both his confidence and creativity. They are the first things to go when confronted by a major depressive event. The work of the young man writing about men and women ‘playing’ in the basement resonates with power.

He relents and begins speaking by phone with the young Wisconsin author.

After a cancelled invitation for a Christmas visit, Gabriel starts questioning the boy’s credibility. So do the publishers. They decide not to publish the book. Shortly thereafter, the Wisconsin phone number is disconnected.

Partly motivated by a journalistic sense to verify or discredit the manuscript, Gabriel sets off to the small Wisconsin city looking for Pete (Rory Culkin) and his mom, Donna Logand (Toni Collette ). On the other hand, he has connected emotionally with a voice on the opposite end of a telephone line, ironically, in much the same manner as listeners connect with celebrities like him.

Poised as a mysteriously haunting quest for a ‘missing person,’ “The Night Listener” spins a delicate yarn straight from oddities that instill reality television, which, incidentally, had its roots with the ordinary Americans spilling their guts and often throwing fists or shoes in front of ‘live’ audiences on therapeutic talk shows (i.e. “Sally,” “Geraldo,” “Jerry Springer”).

Williams, whose character is also battling family crises, falls cautiously into the quest to imprint credibility on the young author’s work. Only after he arrives in Wisconsin, do we see the degree to which he has bonded with the troubled boy. As door slam in his face, the tenacious Williams plods forward even as the personal stakes increase.

“The Night Listener” depicts how easily a sensitive, heart on sleeve person can succumb to emotive manipulation, where, ironically, those in the ‘artistic’ professions often lie. The film maintains an evasiveness favorably subjecting it to numerous interpretations which allow a seemingly nondescript interaction to reach borderlines separating obsession, objectiveness, and simply finding ‘the truth.’

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