Steve Buscemi (Interview) directs his first feature in 15 years (originally played Venice 2022) and somehow, without ever having seen anything Buscemi has directed, The Listener was not at all what I was expecting, but something much more grounded and profound than I ever could’ve expected. Writer Alessandro Camon (Bullet to the Head) has found a way to make a COVID movie feel like anything but that while also addressing the awful state of affairs that the world is currently in, made worse thanks to the pandemic. The movie shines a light on one of the most thankless jobs on the planet, and truly shows how fragile humanity is itself, and how something as simple as a voice can save someone both literally and figuratively.
The movie focuses solely on Beth (Tessa Thompson) as she is one of many, as the audience finds out, who takes calls from people who are in any form of distress. She uses a fake name, for her own protection, and advises the people she speaks to that they don’t have to give their real names either. In a job like that, no one can ever know what kind of call they’re going to get. There is no way to know. No day is ever going to be the same. All they can do is know that they’re trying their hardest to make a positive impact on the life of the person on the other end of the line. This job can take such a toll on one person, hearing every single issue someone else is dealing with, sometimes being able to help and, maybe, sometimes not being able to save them. It is a daunting job that does not get enough respect.
Tessa is dealing with multiple callers who range from talent including Alia Shawkat (Search Party), Rebecca Hall (The Night House), Jamie Hector (Bosch), Bobby Soto (Narcos: Mexico), and Derek Cecil (House of Cards), and each caller brings their own challenges. Some of the callers want Beth to speak to their wife because their marriage is falling apart and they just simply cannot deal with the aftermath of that conversation. One conversation is simply a disturbingly horny person who just wants to hear Beth breath after a while and clearly makes Beth uncomfortable. There was someone mentally ill, there was an army vet just trying to piece his life together, and there was someone who wanted to argue that there was no point left in living. Each of these calls brought their own issues, but Beth never frayed. Sometimes she broke and crossed her own personal boundaries, but she was never dismissive, never told someone off, never disconnected on someone who needed help. She was always the voice at the end of the dark tunnel.
The way Buscemi directs this incredibly down-to-Earth and touching film is simply classical and beautifully done. There is nothing inherently complicated about the framing and style of filmmaking, but there is nothing amateurish to it either; it just feels right. It is crafted by someone who’s clearly been in the business for decades, as Buscemi has been, but it focuses solely on its leading lady in Tessa Thompson (Annihilation), and every frame captures every emotion and reaction from her excellently. Tessa Thompson gives the best performance of her career. It is subtle. It is nuanced. It is downright bone-chilling with the subtle movements she makes, the expressions she gives through each call just demonstrating what these calls do to her mentally and the toll it takes on her. It truly is a thankless job that she does while wearing the trauma she endures as a badge of honor. She refuses to take a back seat while the world is crumbling. She wants to ensure that she can be the helpful, guiding voice that ensures those who feel helpless no longer feel that way when they’re done talking to her. Tessa’s performance is a masterclass in showing how much you can do without needing much. She takes phone calls, listening to voices without faces, and demonstrates so much emotion and the reality of how dire the situation is while just taking it on the chin and doing what she can to be the saviour, so to speak, that these people need.
The Listener boasts a classical direction with a masterful script and is lead by one of the most endearing, raw, and impressive performances to come out of the year. Tessa Thompson simply takes 96 minutes of anxiety-riddled depression and shows to anyone whose struggling out there that there is always someone willing to listen. Even though the figurative listener in this situation shows the audience, even if briefly, how it affects her, the seeming sign of pride she has and knowing she’s making a difference outweighs the negativity, at least for Beth. The Listener truly is a masterclass in acting and will be studied for years to come.
Screening during Tribeca Film Festival 2023.
For more information, head to the official Tribeca Film Festival The Listener webpage.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.