Steve Buscemi’s directorial efforts have tended to focus on outsiders and castoffs. In his 1996 debut, Trees Lounge, the hopeless and downhearted congregate at a dive bar; in Animal Factory (2000), the men of that film’s focus occupy a prison, though even there the possibility for human connection exists. Buscemi’s latest, The Listener, once again looks at some of the most troubled members of society, but at the same time, in some respects, it may be viewed as the director’s bleakest film yet.
Shot during Covid lockdown, The Listener spends 90 minutes with Beth (Tessa Thompson), an operator on a crisis line. We hear her speak with ten different callers, though almost the entire film takes place in her L.A. home. There’s not much visual interest in The Listener; it’s essentially a piece of black-box theater, and Buscemi doesn’t try to artificially broaden its canvas. At the same time, one could argue that the cinematic claustrophobia underscores the isolation that plagues Beth’s callers and, to a large extent, Beth herself.
The writing is sharp, but even this sometimes works against verisimilitude, since it’s tough to believe that these Angelinos can deliver audition monologues when they’re supposed to be at the end of their rope. Nevertheless, if one accepts The Listener’s basic limitations, it’s often an engaging, deeply humane film. Not all the calls are particularly enlightening. Beth’s extended parry with Ellis (Ricky Velez), a hateful 4chan incel, provides topicality but little insight, and a couple of callers, Corrinne (Margaret Cho) and Ruby (Casey Wilson), come off like frazzled Karens, annoyed that the world isn’t progressing according to their desires.
As you might expect, the longest calls prove to be the most emotionally potent, in large part because Beth is able to develop a rapport with her interlocutors, offering counter-arguments along with a patient ear. The first caller, Michael (Logan Marshall-Green), is six months out of prison, and he describes the challenge of adjusting to life on the outside. Sharon (Alia Shawkat) is a self-described “mental” individual who is off her meds, has no insurance, and seems to be in the throes of a manic or possibly psychotic episode. And in the final call, Beth struggles to convince Laura (Rebecca Hall), a recently fired sociology professor, that her life is worth living.
The Listener is indeed uneven, and feels — despite its clear connection to the pandemic — like an artifact from another time, say fifteen or twenty years ago, when modest Sundance indies could still wend their way through the nation’s arthouses and gradually find an audience. Back in the pre-streaming days of cable TV, The Listener is a film you’d stumble upon one night on HBO, watch it quite unintentionally, and come away feeling like you’d spent your evening well.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 23.5.
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