There is only one person on screen in Steve Buscemi’s The Listener, and that is Tessa Thompson (Passing). She plays Beth, a night-shift volunteer for a crisis line into which a great variety of people call over the course of the film’s 96 minutes. Based on a script by Alessandro Camon (The Messenger), the movie appears deceptively simple for the first two thirds, slowly and methodically establishing character and place until, in its emotional climax, the brewing catharsis breaks forth (though gently, gently, as everything goes here). That such profound release of feeling comes in so quiet a package is a remarkable achievement.
Much of the credit here goes to Thompson. Her exquisite rendering of repressed pain and rage, coupled with deep empathy, holds our attention in every frame. Buscemi, however, directing his first feature since the 2007 Interview (with plenty of television since then), proves quite adept at keeping the visuals exciting, beautifully collaborating with cinematographer Anka Malatynska (Breaking Fast) to offer a vast array of shot sizes and angles, including one long-duration take for the phone call that changes everything.
It’s hard to make a single-character chamber piece work, though we saw something similar in the 2014 Locke, starring Tom Hardy in a car. There, he at least had the advantage of (somewhat) forward motion. Here, we remain in one location—except when Beth walks out into the dark for that seminal conversation—forced to, appropriately enough, listen. We also have the opportunity to observe Thompson’s performance, which is a model of carefully modulated behavior. Tour de force does not come close to describing her turn.
In interactions of all kinds—brief, prolonged, respectful, rude—we learn as much about Beth as about those on the other end of the line. Each and every one are in some kind of need: a guy just out of prison who wants to talk about the challenges of being out in the world; a homeless teen whose boyfriend may be about to pimp her out; an angry young man who pushes things into sexual territory; a troubled young woman who doesn’t realize she’s a hidden poet; and, finally, a cynical, possibly suicidal Brit who raises the stakes. There are more, but that list gives the gist.
Beth, as it turns out, is just an assumed name, since volunteers are not supposed to share too much about themselves. But it’s in her eventual opening up that “Beth” is able to do her best healing, both for herself and for the person in need. It’s a great lesson beyond this script, that the expression of one’s feelings can bring others closer (as long as you listen in turn). Open your ears, and give of your heart. So goes The Listener.
– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)
2023 Tribeca Film Festival; Steve Buscemi; The Listener movie review