Filmmakers often aren’t inclined to fade quietly into retirement. The creative impulse and love of the filmmaking process is often too much for them to resist. Jean-Luc Godard was active right up until his recent death at 91, Woody Allen continues to use Europe as his celluloid canvas at 87, and both Speilberg and Scorcese show absolutely zero signs of slowing down as they wrap up their 70s.
Knowling this, I guess it should have been little surprise to see Canada’s legendary-yet-somehow-underrated director Donald Shebib listed as director for Nightalk well into his 80s, a thriller that is miles removed from this journeyman’s days of goin’ down roads.
Nightalk opens with police detective Brenda Roberto (Ashley Bryant) recounting a series of nightmares about being stalked to her attentive therapist (Rena Polley). This serves as a framing device to a larger story where Brenda and her sleazy partner Jimmy (Ted Hallett) are assigned a murder case of a young woman found strangled in her apartment. Leads are slim, but one suggests that the victim may have met her attacker on a popular new phone-sex app, the titular Nightalk.
Frustrated by dead ends, Brenda decides to join the app under an alias at the urging of promiscuous best friend Dixie (Emily Andrews) in an attempt to lure the killer out of the cyber-shadows. She soon finds herself drawn to the confident and dominating Tom (Al Mukadam) whose erotic audio fantasies prove to be surprisingly….stimulating.
When the mounting case evidence begins to point more and more in Tom’s direction, Brenda finds herself torn between her duty and her personal feelings as the pressure to close the case builds. But the big picture might not be that simple as the real perp may have been in Brenda’s inner circle all along.
I’ve never read an erotic paperback novel in my life, but this movie plays like what an older man’s idea of one would be like (“It’s a film written by two 80-year-old guys that’s about female sexuality”, Shebib quipped in a Toronto Star interview last year. “That’s going to get me in trouble right off the bat, right?”). Subtlety is a foreign language to this screenplay as characters deliver clumsy dialogue that would struggle to turn on the audience even if it weren’t watered down by apparent (self?) censorship. Even with some late-stage nudity from the leads, the whole thing comes off about as erotic as a Martha Stewart magazine cover.
For what Shebib seems to lack in storytelling and craftsmanship here, he partially makes up for in his eye for casting. Star Ashley Bryant manages to step up to the plate and imbue the film’s protagonist with enough depth and pathos to keep the flagging ship afloat. Industry veterans Art Hindle and Kent Sheridan help keep things on course although you start to wonder if the budget ran out when it came to casting the more lukewarm Mukadam and Hallett.
I can appreciate Shebib’s enthusiasm to stretch his auteurial muscle, but he might have been better off trying this story as a stage play, if for no other reason than to refine the scenario and dialogue to at least the ballpark of verisimilitude. Nightalk would normally be lucky to land the 3am time slot on Lifetime, but scored as a Tubi pickup (damned if I know how the producers convinced TIFF to premiere it last year). Come for Bryant’s performance and stay if you like cinematic punishment.
Nightalk is currently available to stream on Tubi