Depicting a disability or condition of any kind offers a number of challenges for filmmakers. Showing sensitivity and empathy without falling over into exploitation is no easy task. And using it as a simple plot device can be problematic despite a movie having the very best of intentions. “The Night Clerk” straddles that fine red line, never crossing it but coming pretty close.
Filmmaker and playwright Michael Cristofer pens the screenplay and directs his first movie since the ￼2001 Angelina Jolie/Antonio Banderas stinker “Original Sin”. “The Night Clerk” is hands-down a better movie but it’s not without its own set of issues. While it’s never boring and the characters keep it lively, I kept waiting for it to go a little further, to be more suspenseful and offer more thrills. Basically I kept waiting for it to be as good as it could have been.
“The Night Clerk” plays like a modern noir complete with a murder, a not-so-hard-boiled detective, and of course a femme fatale. It stars Tye Sheridan who plays 23-year-old Bart, our eyes and ears through the entire picture. We learn he has Asperger’s Syndrome which makes everyday communication a challenge. To help he uses his job as a nighttime front desk clerk at a moderately priced hotel to observe guests and mimic their speech.
Here’s the catch, the tech savvy Bart has rigged several of the hotel’s rooms with cameras which he monitors on his tablet. His intentions aren’t perverse or voyeuristic (so the movie says). Instead he records and studies the guests, their interactions and conversations, in hopes of improving his own skills. One night while ‘observing’ a new guest, Bart witnesses a violent altercation. By the time he gets to the room a woman is dead, the assailant is gone, and Bart is in a pickle.￼ Does he tell the police what he saw, exposing his spying and costing him his job?
Nobody believes Bart is involved especially his overprotective mother (Helen Hunt). The lone exception is the suspicious Detective Espada (John Leguizamo going through the motions). He doesn’t buy Bart’s simplistic and straightforward explanation. Bart’s sympathetic boss transfers him to another hotel across town where he picks up where he left off. Enter Andrea Rivera, the femme fatale played by a sizzling Ana de Armas. She checks in one night and Bart is instantly smitten. But (obviously) there is something mysterious about her which Bart’s cameras soon reveal. Meanwhile the detective stays on his prime suspect, confident he is hiding something.
Does Bart know more than he’s letting on? Who is the killer? Does Andrea have some kind of connection? The pieces slowly and mechanically start coming together yet there is nothing especially thrilling about the mystery. Instead it’s the characters who keep our attention, specifically Bart and Andrea. Their interactions always seem to unveil something new while never revealing everything. One of them is always hiding something from the other. The characters turn out to be more interesting than the web they’re caught up in.
You get the feeling this was intended to be a breakout dramatic role for Sheridan and he’s impressive. He gives a hard-working performance that pays a lot of attention to the details. And you can’t help but notice the time and research he put into it. Most importantly he does it without the performance falling into caricature. I don’t feel like I’m qualified to fully review its accuracies, but it is an earnest portrayal that doesn’t belittle people with Asperger’s.
While Sheridan is good, it’s Ana de Armas who steals the show. She was cast here before her star-making turn in “Knives Out”, but you can see why she has become such a captivating actress. She does several interesting things with a character who could have easily been your garden-variety enigmatic beauty. She shows compassion and elicits sympathy yet there is always something cryptic and impenetrable about Andrea. Her performance creates more mystery than the script itself.
“The Night Clerk” is an enigma in itself. It’s hard to gauge its convictions or tell where it lands. Take Bart and his ‘surveilling‘ of hotel guests. I’m still not sure if the movie wants us to wrestle with it or give him a pass. It’s mainly due to the film playing everything so aggressively down the middle. Still it has enough meat on its bones and two reasonably compelling characters to keep your engaged. Ultimately, as thrillers go you could do a lot worse. At the same time you can’t help but think this could have been a lot better.
VERDICT – 3 STARS