*If you mind such things, be warned that there are "spoilers" to come.*
As I was walking home from The Night Listener (2006, Patrick Stettner), I had a strange feeling I couldn’t shake; it was a mixture of turning over in my mind both the pleasurable strangeness of the movie itself and the strength of the audience’s negative reaction. At a few points people in the audience yelled out their guesses for what was going to next be revealed, but mostly had to settle for what was probabilistically determined by the characters. Audience members began to mutter to their companions about how stupid the movie was. After the lights came up, the friend who had come with me said that he, too, had thought it bad—“they made a really strong case that the child didn’t exist, and so they needed to do something else with the ending.” I didn’t argue, but I was also thinking that the way the film ended seems to be roughly how the real-life experience that inspired it, well, didn’t end, but drew to a close for the purposes of telling people about it, became a story. They didn’t catch Toni Colette’s character breaking into Robin William’s character’s house with a butcher knife because there was no parallel event in real life, and they didn’t get her to admit that there was never a child because, again, there was no such confession.
My interest in seeing the film had been rooted in the story’s relationship to real life (I was already familiar with the basic plot and some of the real-life events it was based on, partially due to all the publicity about the recent parallel case of JT Leroy), and so the accuracy of that depiction and the attitude the film brought to those events—emphasizing the sense of the uncanny that the idea of forming a relationship with a child and then finding out that that child may or may not be real, and the idea that there may be people out there like the character portrayed by Colette—was what I had been looking for, and what I had been fairly satisfied with. But based on the things they had called out—“that’s not the kid on the phone, it’s her!”, etc.—and what my friend had said— which I took to mean that they needed to ratchet up the tension with a twist of some kind—much of the rest of the audience seemed to be watching a thriller modeled on Bunny Lake is Missing and Flightplan. And the film itself encourages this interpretation, with a typical mystery-thriller structure: it’s explained that something material is at stake—a book contract—and a detective character—Robin Williams—heads out to investigate. Formal elements that reinforce this interpretation include the creepy Takemitsu-style music and the way scenes like that in which Williams breaks into and investigates the house are constructed to convey a sense of imminent danger (though there are a few points at which there’s danger—the over-protective cop, or when Colette’s character puts both herself and Williams in danger—what he mostly has to fear is a crazy woman’s irrational anger).
I imagined the director insisting that the film was a thriller: “It is a thriller, but the mystery is not whether or not there is a kid but the motivations of the characters. The tension comes from not knowing why people are doing what they’re doing.” Or something sort of pretentious, if not entirely inaccurate, like that. There are definitely some sequences that just don’t work, and a few even that are risible, such as Williams’ visit to the hospital where, after encountering the cancer patient who hisses like a demon, he twists his ankle in a fashion so contrived that Chevy Chase would cringe. The are plenty of problems with the film, in the final analysis. But the Problem with the Film, in the end, the Problem that caused people to declare it a Bad Movie, might have a lot to do with the mismatching of audience expectations with the nature of the film. Expectations, that is to say, encouraged by the script/formal cues described above and much intensified by the way in which the film was commercially released: it was opened on 1200 multiplex screens with the promise of a “Hitchcockian thriller”, to quote one quote in one ad. In the end, I don’t think that that aspect of the film is especially satisfying, nor do I think it was mostly what interested the filmmakers.
My personal opinion, then: It’s not an especially good movie, but I enjoyed it. Taken as a depiction of real events, I found the bizarre character played by Toni Colette fascinatingly creepy and the comparison between William’s character’s work as a writer and Colette’s as a compulsive fraud resonant (if perhaps a little pat in the way it’s presented). But upon reflection I can see that, taken as a thriller, Colette’s performance seems like a lot of psychotic sound and fury signifying very little, as in the end there’s neither a skeleton in the root cellar nor a child-prisoner in a deserted mansion, and that the commentary on fiction seems a poor lesson to take away from such a contrivance.
But whatever; I also liked and found interesting The Cell, and I’m still pretty much alone in my admiration for that film. And I thought a film I saw earlier in the weekend, The Descent, was just pretty good, while popular judgment has rendered it the second coming of Alien. So maybe with The Night Listener I just don’t know a bad thriller when I see one.
To briefly reflect once more on the commercial aspect of the film: some might suggest that if what I were really saying were accurate—that there’s something to the film, and that the context of fiction thrillers in which the audience was asked to approach the film were inappropriate, that the answer would have been to give the film a more gradual release, beginning with a couple art-house theaters where it might screen to a sophisticated audience that tends to be up on current events (such as the JT Leroy saga) and passes on word when it likes something. But, given the generally lukewarm reception by critics (I read A.O. Scott in the New York Times and Desson Thomas in the Washington Post), I’m not sure that things would have been better had they released it more slowly. The root of that problem might have been what was apparently a much poorer version of the film originally screened at Sundance. There was no mention in the reviews, but the version that opened in theaters had supposedly been much improved from what the critics had first seen. The executives in charge of releasing it might have devised the theater plan and advertising campaign knowing they were already beat by bad early word of mouth, and decided to simply do their best this weekend to cash in and get out the DVD.