In his acting life, Steve Buscemi has certainly mixed things up, finding time for Bruckheimer/Simpson blockbusters, Pixar animation and even Adam Sandler movies in a bid to avoid typecasting as the definitive New York indie guy. In his directing career, however, he tends to stick to a certain genre: small, intimate, personal films like his excellent 1996 debut Trees Lounge, which told the story of a melancholic underachiever whose life revolves around a seedy dive bar where the crowd of misfit regulars become his bizarre de facto family. Loneliness is a familiar motif in Buscemi’s work, and he excelled himself with that in 2005’s Lonesome Jim, starring Casey Affleck as a young man who’s failed in the big city and now has to move in with his parents.
The Listener, surprisingly only his fifth movie, contains elements of both these titles, starring Tessa Thompson as Beth, a helpline worker who lives alone in a sprawling city that is never named but looks a lot, in the closing scenes, like downtown Los Angeles. Beth – not her real name – is a helpline volunteer who works through the night answering calls from people with problems, starting with a former hold-up guy, recently released from jail after lockdown, who finds it grimly amusing that he can no longer go into a shop without wearing a mask. The call doesn’t last long, it is just the first in a series of conversations — none related — that Beth will take throughout the night. Some are plain sad, like the man who just told his wife he no longer loves her, and some are scary: Beth locks the door after hearing from a cheery guy who turns out to be a mercurial misogynist who puts deep-fake revenge porn online for fun.
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It takes a little while to get into the rhythm of it all, since this isn’t a genre movie as such, and the slightly heightened sense of unease that it starts with — a single woman in an apartment that, while filled with objects and trinkets, doesn’t feel so homely — does rather suggest that things will escalate as they did in The Guilty (the better, original Danish version). Such an episodic nature does lead to lulls, but it’s also quite a brave decision; like Beth, the film is a night owl and will probably play better in late, late slots at international film festivals, where its low-key artistry will be better appreciated.
There are two callers, however, that make the film snap into focus One is the bipolar Sharon, played by Alia Shawkat. Sharon owns her mental illness, and Beth finds herself taken off guard by this strange, lively but, by her own admission, still rather crazy individual. In presenting her true self, Sharon softens Beth for the film’s final caller, Laura, a former academic. Voiced by Rebecca Hall, Laura is many things — melancholy, self-pitying and certainly on the verge of suicidal — but she is not stupid, and as she unburdens her woes she starts to get fellow-traveler vibes from Beth, who opens up about her past and, more importantly, her unsteady sights on the future.
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There is no eureka moment where it all snaps together, and audiences will need to sink into its eerily quiet, twilight mood to get the most from it (Buscemi certainly invests in the old notion that the darkest hour is just before dawn). And for all its box-ticking of modern-day ills, Alessandro Camon’s understated script does succeed in what it sets out to do, which is to reflect on the curious fact that people in big cities are more disaffected and alienated than ever, even though the means of reaching out and communicating have never been more prolific. Maybe it’s obvious, but it’s a message that still lands.