Film: Bad, Bad Girls

The Descent succeeds via strong women, while The Night Listener is an unaffecting mystery

Aug 2, 2006 at 2:06 pm
Lion's Gate Films

The Night Listener's Robin Williams looks for help.

"The notorious one ... I'm lightbeam, no stopping me ... I am a live wildness left behind."

— Maxine Hong Kingston, My Wicked Wicked Ways

There have been memorable bad girls on screen. Just earlier this year, Sharon Stone tried unsuccessfully to resuscitate Catherine Trammell, her pulpy femme fatale from Basic Instinct. Glenn Close comes to mind after her bunny-boiling turn in Fatal Attraction. It's interesting to note that Michael Douglas is the one constant in these two instances; maybe he has a way of bringing the badness out of these characters.

But the truly evolved girls, the ones that approached the essence of Kingston's quote are those like Sigourney Weaver's Ripley from the Alien films or Linda Hamilton's Sarah Connor from the first two Terminator movies. Ripley and Sarah are smart women caught up in scenarios that meld horror and thriller elements, situations where they initially start out as helpless characters that find and use their inner strength. In doing so they become more than mere girls or women.

They morph into something like the boys who are usually the protagonists in these adventures.

Writer-director Neil Marshall knows a thing or two about creating smart movies that exploit the basic horror genre conventions. His 1999 short film Combat and his feature debut Dog Soldiers stripped the extraneous humor and the simplistic morals from the notion of a small group of people who are being knocked off one at a time, à la Halloween or Friday the 13th. He focused on the drama of often-fraying relationships and how flesh-and-blood people would react.

With The Descent, Marshall returns to this notion and ratchets up the suspense by turning his attention to a group of women, adrenaline junkies who love whitewater rafting down fast rapids, base jumping and caving.

Some of them like Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) have husbands and children, while others like Juno (Natalie Mendoza) live more as wandering free spirits. When Sarah loses her husband and young daughter in a freak highway accident during the film's early moments, she finds herself drifting, struggling to hold onto her sanity.

Juno and their extended girlfriends arrange a caving expedition a year later to help her reconnect. The trip quickly takes a turn for the worse as the uncharted region and a few technical mishaps land the explorers in a netherworld where they must fight for their lives against a clan of murderous, mutant cave dwellers. The six women must also overcome long-buried secrets and broken trusts among themselves.

The angst here is relationship-based, but it is embodied in tense action sequences and a primal sense of rebirth, especially for Sarah. The Descent will likely not attract the attention of mainstream audiences like Aliens or The Terminator, but Ripley and Sarah Connor have a kindred spirit in the warrior-woman constellation.

The Night Listener is based on the experiences of writer Armistead Maupin. It offers up Robin Williams in a quietly dramatic role as Gabriel Noone, a writer and radio show host who begins long-distance relationships with an abused young boy (Rory Culkin) named Pete and Donna (Toni Collette), the social worker who adopted Pete after his traumatic experiences.

As Gabriel flounders with his lover Jess (Bobby Cannavale), the exchanged letters and phone calls with Pete provide him an anchor, a sense of family he desperately craves. But it's not long before everyone around him begins to suspect that Pete and Donna are not who they appear to be. His slow-developing investigation shatters the unstable bonds.

Williams breathes life into Gabriel through the subtle shifting of his eyes or a tossed-off gesture. His manic spirit in serious efforts is never exactly restrained — he briefly opens the shutters and allows audiences to look inside the hearts and minds of buttoned-down people where wildness exists.

But as good as he is here, the film, directed by Patrick Stettner (The Business of Strangers), tips its hand early on as the spotlight draws a bead on Donna and Collette brings to mind shades of Kathy Bates in Misery. Collette reveals the depths of mental instability in Donna's unshakable resolve to bring the fantasies in her head into the real world.

The Night Listener never achieves the balance necessary for its mystery to feel like a lived experience. It is a fragile experiment, but ultimately not a winning formula, possibly because it lacks the tension and crowd-pleasing shocks of Misery or the head-scratching tricks of a writer like Charlie Kaufman who would have turned it into a puzzle worthy of Williams' beautifully unhinged mind and Collette's bad, bad girl. The Descent grade: B+; The Night Listener grade: C-