James Jay Edwards reviews The Night Clerk, a crime drama film, written and directed by Michael Cristofer and starring Tye Sheridan, Ana de Armas, Helen Hunt, and John Leguizamo.
Ever since playwright Michael Cristofer won both a Tony and a Pulitzer for The Shadow Box in 1980, he’s been floating around Hollywood as a writer (The Witches of Eastwick), an actor (Mr. Robot), and even an occasional director (Gia). His newest effort from behind the camera is The Night Clerk.
The Night Clerk is about an autistic young man named Bart Bromley (Tye Sheridan from Ready Player One) who, by night, works as a counter person in a hotel. By day, he hangs out in the basement bedroom of the home he shares with his mother, Ethel (Mad About You’s Helen Hunt), watching video surveillance of the guests through hidden cameras that he has planted in the hotel’s rooms. And it only gets creepier from there. Keep in mind, Bart is the hero of this story.
(The Night Clerk theatrical release poster; Saban Films)
When Bart secretly witnesses one of the hotel guests being murdered, he is pegged as a suspect by lead detective Johnny Espada (John Leguizamo from John Wick). The officer doesn’t have enough evidence to charge him, but Bart is transferred to another hotel location to avoid trouble. Before long, the boy is up to his old tricks again as he becomes infatuated with a new guest named Andrea Rivera (Knives Out’s Ana de Armas). As he watches (and befriends) her, he starts to believe that she may become the next victim of the killer. But how can he prevent the murder without incriminating himself further?
That sounds like an intriguing premise for a movie, right? And it is. At least for a while. The Night Clerk starts off strongly and strangely enough, with a compelling mystery full of interesting characters and suspenseful situations. This is all amplified by the ingenious use of Bart’s illicit surveillance as a storytelling tool, allowing the viewer to feel the voyeurism and paranoia right alongside the characters. Michael Cristofer’s narrative teases its way through its plot, giving its audience just enough hope for a knockout ending, but right when you think you’re in for some devilish double-crossing, it peters out. And disappointment turns to pure frustration with the get-out-of-jail-free ending. The conclusion of the film would be more effective if the implied red herring ending was actually the real one.
(The Night Clerk; Saban Films)
That’s the plot. What about the characters? Well, as one might expect from a movie with a character on the spectrum, the depiction is a bit problematic.
Sheridan’s character seems more like a guy with Tourette’s syndrome than an autistic individual. He’s got some of the intense focus and monotonous repetition down, but certain behaviors are needlessly amplified so that he almost becomes a parody. It’s not entirely his fault, as the verbal tics and outbursts are most likely written into the character. But it is a bit off-putting. Sheridan tries to have Oscar moments, but he lacks the subtleties and nuances of, say, Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man. And The Night Clerk isn’t that kind of a movie anyway, so even when his efforts stick their landing, it seems out of place in a dark thriller.
(The Night Clerk; Saban Films)
The rest of the characters are pretty much cookie-cutter archetypes – the hard-boiled cop, the mysterious and sexy stranger, the concerned mother. All well played, but Cristofer’s screenplay doesn’t give any of them much to do. In fact, take out the eccentricities of Bart and the creative use of the fly-on-the-wall video motif, and The Night Clerk is a pretty standard modern noir murder mystery.
Luckily, The Night Clerk does have Bart, and it does have the verité camera work. And while it’s still a typical mystery, it’s at least interesting enough to hold its audience’s attention for the duration, even if it’s ultimately an unsatisfying movie. That’s more than can be said for many modern noir murder mysteries.