Trust no one. That seems the only way to navigate the contemporary minefield of fiction, with widespread deception being the current fad. Take, among others, the bizarre JT LeRoy hoax, which left fans as perplexed as the book reviewers who wondered who they had been talking to during phone interviews. It's murky territory when an author gleefully smears the line between reality and fabrication, forcing us to consider why and where that line makes a difference.
While there is no discernable relationship to the LeRoy case, its circumstances closely resemble those of the new film The Night Listener, originally a novel by Armistead Maupin, who also wrote the screenplay, based on "real," somewhat autobiographical events. In it, Gabriel Noone (well played by Robin Williams), a writer and radio storyteller (AKA Maupin), receives the manuscript of a memoir written by a teenage boy, Pete Logand (Rory Culkin), the victim of a harrowing childhood in which his parents exploited him as a sex slave, selling the tapes to pedophiles on the internet. Now in the care of an adoptive social worker, Donna (the awesome Toni Colette), Pete is dying of AIDS, one of his only joys being Noone's radio show.
The two develop a telephone relationship, but as time goes by, doubts are raised as to the authenticity of the memoir and of Logand's existence, with Noone desperately attempting to root out the truth. To further convolute things, the entire film is presented as one of Noone's negligibly autobiographical stories, leaving you totally without guarantee in regards to the honesty of any part of the narrative.
While disorienting, many people enjoy this kind of teasing, a sensation the filmmakers exaggerate as fear, employing hallmarks of the horror genre (creaky floors, wild eyes) in what isn't so much a scary story as an unsettling one. Also uneven is the tedium of Noone's struggles with his longtime partner, Jess (Bobby Cannavale), a plotline that's significant because of Jess' HIV-positive status as a factor in Noones' emotional attachment to Logand, but which teeters on self-indulgence on the part of Maupin.
In many ways, The Night Listener is a throwback to the Hitchcock-ian uncanny, but its resemblance to so many recent literary scandals is distracting to its detriment—summoning the realization that it's time for a new game to play.