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The Listener movie review & film summary (2024)

The result plays like a much more relaxed, intuitive mirror-world equivalent of the great and under-seen Oliver Stone movie “Talk Radio,” starring Eric Bogosian and based on his play, which was about a bombastic late-night talk show host inciting, insulting, and otherwise battling with callers. What the movies have in common, besides an “all in one night” structure, is a sense that they’re examining the United States’ body politic at the times in which they were made. The energy here is quieter, more empathetic and intuitive, more “feminine,” at least in contrast to the hairy-chested alpha-dog verbal attacks of “Talk Radio,” but it’s a shock to realize that a lot of the ills that Stone and Bogosian diagnosed have not gone away, only mutated.

Beth’s callers are lonely and feel abandoned and/or oppressed by society. There’s a sardonic veteran of the Iraqi and Afghanistan wars who is traumatized by his experience and tossed aside by his government and whose marriage is trouble. “Try explaining that to the missus, how much you miss sleeping in a room full of dudes and guns,” he says. There’s a young woman who is verbally gifted (Beth tells her she sounds like a poet) but who is mentally ill and not taking her meds because her comedian partner dumped her and she lost her health insurance. She’s feeling paranoid and beleaguered and is upset by pretty much everything. “I have snakes for bones,” she says, and tells Beth that she calls her own brain “Brian…because it’s scrambled.” There’s a young homeless woman who ran away from home and now lives in “a cozy two-person tent.” The scariest caller is a young man whose hatred of women is apparent even before he confirms it to Beth and starts trying to breach the parameters she insists upon.

One of the aspects that’s most fascinating in retrospect is how little information the movie feels it needs to give the audience in order to create a mood and a story. It’s very close to feeling like a filmed theater piece, the kind that would run in a small venue and that doesn’t spend a lot of money on the set because it’s not the kind of play that requires it and that’s a major reason why it was selected. 

It’s judicious with exposition, too. You don’t know exactly where Beth lives or whether there are any other living beings in the place with her until the movie decides to tell you. You also don’t know exactly what sort of service Beth works for. She tells one caller that not everybody who reaches out to her is suicidal. Most people just call her to talk. She doesn’t fill out any forms or go on a computer. You don’t see her take written notes. There are a couple of cuts to her notebook revealing that she makes drawings while she talks to people. Touches like this make the movie feels as if it’s occurring in a fictional space that is more figurative than realistic. 

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