A film review by Craig J. Koban March 14, 2020

THE NIGHT CLERK jj
 

2020, R, 90 mins.

 

Tye Sheridan as Bart Bromley  /  Helen Hunt as Ethel Bromley  /  Ana de Armas as Andrea  /  John Leguizamo as Johnny Espada  /  Johnathon Schaech as Nick Perretti  /  Jacque Gray as Karen Perrette  /  D.L. Walker as Used Car Dealer

Written and directed by Michael Cristofer

 

 

 

 

The new crime drama THE NIGHT CLERK represents Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winner Michael Cristofer's first feature film directorial effort in nearly twenty years, with his last film being 2001's ORIGINAL SIN.  

This obviously begs the question as to whether or not a two decade absence was well worth the wait for this?  

The short answer would be...not really.  

THE NIGHT CLERK tries to position itself as a Hitchcockian, REAR WINDOW inspired thriller with some modern day twists, and despite some potentially compelling handling of its themes and some interesting character dynamics at play, Cristofer's film seems underdeveloped and genuinely lacking in dramatic interest.  It's one of those underwhelming genre pictures where - at the very end of the film just as the credits start rolling by - you kind of just shrug, toss your hands in the air, and proclaim, "That's it?"

The extremely talented Tye Sheridan is either miscast or improperly directed here as well.  He plays Bart, a young twentysomething night shift receptionist at a local hotel.  He works these thankless hours (mostly void of customers and other people) because he's afflicted with an acute case of Asperger Syndrome, which makes him exceptionally ill at ease and horribly uncoordinated in social circles (at times, he finds it nearly impossible to even carry on modest and brief conversations with people).  He lives at home in the basement of his kind, caring, and well meaning mother (a decent Helen Hunt), but they barely have an intimate parent/son relationship (she lives on the top half of her bungalow, and even has to prepare and leave meals for him on the stairway leading into the basement).  Living a life of relative normalcy at home and at work is a daily grind and challenge for Bart.

He has one gift, though, that helps him get by: He's a tech and computer genius, and he uses his know-how to set up a series of well placed security cameras in the rooms of the hotel he works at, but he doesn't really do it for sickeningly perverse purposes: he watches people in the rooms and observes their behavior doing mundane things in an effort to help teach him how to act when dealing with people in society.  Bart takes it too literally at times, though, in the way he specifically mimics their everyday speech, and often regurgitates it in response to incongruent conversations with others.  One night changes his life forever when he witnesses a brutal murder of one of the hotel's clients, causing him to go down a tailspin of panic, which further leads to him desperately attempting to remove all evidence of his hidden cameras in the room.  His predicament is especially thorny, mostly because (a) he tried to stop the crime from happening, but failed, and (2) he has specific knowledge of what happened because of his cameras, but relaying details to the police would tip off that he's been illegally spying on people without their consent.

 

 

A detective (John Leguizama) comes to the scene to investigate matters, but he seems to be having a really difficult time believing Bart's cover-up story while trying to remain understanding and respectful of his underlying medical condition.  He smells something funny, but proceeds carefully.  As the investigation continues, Bart is re-located by his boss to a different hotel in hopes of keeping clear of the mess that's developing at the other hotel.  One night he's greeted by a lonely new guest named Andrea (Ana de Armas), who curiously seems to have a surprising amount of empathy and understanding towards Bart's Aspergers, and begins a casual and mostly platonic friendship with the stressed out clerk.  Their budding relationship offers up kernels of interest in the main storyline, especially when it's later revealed that she's harboring her own secrets as well while their bond starts to achieve romantic lift-off.

THE NIGHT CLERK has an initially compelling hook when it comes to approaching its dicey subject matter of voyeurism.  Whereas Jimmy Stewart's character in REAR WINDOW spied on his neighbors to stave off severe boredom due to wheelchair bound injury, Bart here does it to gain a feel for human interaction that he hopes, in turn, will educate and inform him in the future when it comes to how to carry on meaningful ties with friends, family, and strangers.  Since his Aspergers has all but stymied his desire to actively seek out healthy human ties, Bart lives vicariously through his computer monitors and spends more time with his tech than he actually does with people.  Bart isn't a sick deviant.  He uses his cameras for educational purposes.  Herein lies the larger problem with THE NIGHT CLERK: If Bart didn't have Aspergers, then the film would have a difficult time explaining away his hidden camera obsession.  This has the negative and unintended negative side effect of rendering his mental illness as a lazy plot manipulating device than something that seems to occupy the story organically.  When all is said and done, Cristofer uses Bart's Aspergers to cheaply sweep under the rug the nagging ethical issues of his clandestine surveillance of others against their consent.   And his condition is never embellished beyond mere superficial levels as well.

Sheridan's blandly mannered performance in the film doesn't help matters either, which is a shame because he's demonstrated in past films like THE TREE OF LIFE, JOE, and MUD to be a young performer of considerable talent and range.  Here, unfortunately, Sheridan finds a very minimal baseline to play the character and never really deviates, nor expands beyond that.  I'm sure that people that actually suffer from Aspergers, no doubt, have limited social interaction skills and struggle with the normal ebbs and flows of maintaining everyday conversations, but I simply didn't find Sheridan's work here to be authentically grounded.  It's mechanical acting on one auto tuned setting, and Sheridan simply doesn't seem equal to the task of given Bart the significant and subtle layers that he should have, especially considering that he's a man afflicted with a paralyzing condition that just so happens to be illegally spying on people.  His supporting co-star in Leguizamo perhaps fares worse.  His detective character doesn't have much character on the written page, and the actor seems bored, stiff, and disinterested throughout the film.

Faring much better is Ana de Armas, who's proven in one film after another (like BLADE RUNNER 2049 and last year's brilliant whodunit mystery KNIVES OUT) to be an increasingly committed and headstrong actress trying to escape comfort windows.  Her character here is tricky, mostly because she has to portray Andrea as a nurturing figure of positive change for Bart while also showing a hidden and unflattering side of her full of secrets that could spell an end to their flourishing closeness.  It's essentially a femme fetale love interest role, and in a lesser actresses' hand it could have come off more crudely, but here de Armas finds hidden layers of warm and welcoming depth to her.  Bart and Andrea's relationship arc - as well as the nicely unforced chemistry of the two leads - works overtime and almost keeps THE NIGHT CLERK afloat when the rest of its scripting constantly threatens to sink it.

Still, as a thriller about a mentally challenged voyeur that witnesses a murder, becomes a suspect, and then tries to cover it all up, THE NIGHT CLERK offers up shockingly little in the avenue of surprise or tension.  The love story contained within is in deep conflict with the murder mystery investigation and a further exploration of Bart's Aspergers and, to be frank, criminal activities, and Cristofer can't seem to find a manner of having them all flow together seamlessly.  It's also important to have a central mystery in your mystery thriller not be tipped off or revealed too early as it is here, which all but neuters the film's narrative momentum and interest.  That, and THE NIGHT CLERK commits the worst cinematic sin - as far as this genre is concerned - of being, well, dull.  Cristofer offers up a uniquely intriguing premise and homage to REAR WINDOW, but the execution and follow-through is fundamentally lacking, leaving THE NIGHT CLERK feeling like first draft/edit material as opposed to something approaching a satisfyingly final package.  Once I checked into this film I wanted to check out early, which is a damning sign. 

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