'The Night Clerk': Film Review

The Night Clerk - Publicity Still - H 2020
Saban Films
Strives for a seriousness it never earns.

Tye Sheridan plays a young man with Asperger's syndrome who accidentally witnesses a murder in Michael Cristofer's thriller, also featuring Ana de Armas, John Leguizamo and Helen Hunt.

It's hard to discern exactly what the new film written and directed by Michael Cristofer is trying to be. Ostensibly, The Night Clerk presumes to be a thriller about a hotel clerk who accidentally witnesses the murder of one of his guests and winds up becoming a suspect himself, although there's little about it that feels suspenseful. That the title character has Asperger's syndrome adds several new elements to the mix that feel underdeveloped. The results aren't fully satisfying on any level, despite a terrific cast that includes rising star Ana de Armas (Knives Out), soon to be seen in the upcoming James Bond film No Time to Die.

Tye Sheridan (Ready Player One, Mud) plays the central role of Bart, a 23-year-old night shift receptionist at a hotel which, as the manager explains at one point, prides itself on hiring people with disabilities. Since his condition inevitably makes him ill at ease in social situations, Bart has devised a clever, if fiendish, way to improve himself. A technical whiz, he's placed several cameras in the rooms, allowing him to observe its occupants at his leisure so he can study their behavior and mimic their way of speaking.

One night he sees a female guest (Jacque Gray) getting involved in a violent altercation with a man. By the time Bart rushes to the room, the woman is dead of a gunshot wound. Despite the warning of the hotel manager not to touch the scene, Bart can't help himself, dipping his finger into a pool of the woman's blood on the floor. Needless to say, he soon becomes a prime suspect for the police detective (John Leguizamo) assigned to the case.

Not long after, Bart meets another guest, Andrea (de Armas), who seems perfectly at ease with his social awkwardness and acts flirtatiously. The two strike up a friendship, with Andrea telling him that he reminds her of her brother, who is on the spectrum. Bart begins to interpret her warmth as romantic interest, although it's eventually revealed that there are other motivations going on as well.

Directing his first film since his ill-received 2001 Angelina Jolie-starring melodrama Original Sin, Cristofer (also a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, for 1977's The Shadow Box) seems unsure of what he wants to achieve. The premise is certainly workable enough for a Hitchcockian-style thriller, but the pic seems to treat the murder and mystery as to the identity of the culprit almost as an afterthought. The attempts at comic relief, including Bart making wildly inappropriate comments to various salespeople, seem gratuitous and exploitative. And while the tender relationship that develops between Bart and Andrea proves the most involving element of the storyline, it, too, fails to live up to its dramatic potential.

The performers certainly aren't to blame. Sheridan makes the most of his character's limited ability to express himself emotionally, providing subtle shadings that make Bart sympathetic despite his social and moral missteps. De Armas is warmly appealing as the potential love interest, and Helen Hunt makes a strong impression as Bart's mother, who will do anything to protect her "fragile" son who spends most of his time in the basement. Unfortunately, their commendable efforts aren't enough to compensate for the film's tonal and narrative inconsistencies.  

Production companies: SF, Highland Film Group, WPAK Productions, Convergent Media
Distributor: Saban Films
Cast: Tye Sheridan, Ana de Armas, John Leguizamo, Helen Hunt, Johnathon Schaech, Jacque Gray
Director-screenwriter: Michael Cristofer
Producers: Arianne Fraser, Tye Sheridan, David Wulf
Executive producers: Santosh Govindaraju, Dan Reardon, Delphine Perrier, Henry Winterstern, Robbie Brenner, William V. Bromiley, Shanan Becker, Jonathan Saba, Ness Saban
Director of photography: Noah Greenberg
Production designer: Diane Millet
Editor: Kristi Shimek
Composer: Erik Hall
Costume designer: Jacqueline Johnson
Casting: Rich Delia

Rated R, 90 minutes