Don’t Check In for “The Night Clerk”

by Warren Cantrell on February 20, 2020

in Print Reviews,Reviews

[Rating: Minor Rock Fist Down]

Rain Man meets Rear Window in The Night Clerk, the new suspense thriller by writer/director Michael Cristofer that feels more like a first draft than a fully realized movie. A tangled murder yarn with only one truly fleshed out character, the film possesses the bones of an interesting story, yet ends up chasing a “twist” that is neither shocking nor especially interesting.

Tye Sheridan plays Bart, the eponymous night clerk in a mid-range chain hotel that’s suffering through its slow season. Although it is established definitively later on, it’s clear from the first few minutes that Bart is on the spectrum and is managing his Asperger’s with all the deft grace of a bull in a china shop. Bart is a very literal person, and struggles with small talk like, “how are you?” Bart’s standard retort to this line of inquiry is that this is a, “very complicated question,” for with Bart, it truly is. Bart has no social filter and often says the first thing that comes to mind, which The Night Clerk shows to be an inconvenience for Bart when handling the normal business of talking to a convenience store worker, car salesman, and even the hotel guests.  

To practice his social interaction skills, Bart has taken the extraordinary step of placing cameras in several of his hotel’s guest rooms, watching not necessarily for the expected voyeuristic reasons, but as a means to study “normal” behavior. Bart’s spying takes a dark turn when he witnesses a guest’s murder on his CCTV, thrusting him into the middle of a police investigation led by Detective Espada (John Leguizamo), who latches onto the skittish clerk as his prime suspect. The arrival of a new hotel guest Andrea (Ana de Armas), who takes an immediate liking to Bart in the midst of this investigation, complicates things further for the young man, whose carefully cultivated and guarded world is seeing encroachments from all sides.

The Night Clerk thus has an interesting set-up, with a unique, lived-in main character that works well as the engine for these shenanigans. Bart has reason to hide his surveillance habits from Espada, which only deepen the detective’s suspicions and ratchet up the pressure on the narrative. What’s more, Sheridan is really going for it in the lead role, and has clearly put in the work to create a character that doesn’t borrow anything from Rain Man, Matchstick Men, or even One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Sheridan’s deployment of his posture, eye contact (or lack thereof), speaking rhythm, and voice cadence all come across as unique and true to the character, and draw the audience into Bart’s world.

Yet the film rests too much on the shoulders of Sheridan’s performance, which is indeed fantastic, yet consumes so much narrative oxygen that the central mystery of The Night Clerk takes something of a backseat to it. Armas is intoxicating as the mysterious Andrea, and there are clues sprinkled throughout the second act that tie her to the murder, yet the connections are never definitively established. Making matters worse for the narrative, there’s never any doubt about Bart’s innocence, nor any threat to him from the murderer, so the picture is robbed of any true suspense outside of Espada’s pursuit: itself a secondary consideration to the story writ large.

In other words, Cristofer seems to have had an idea for a story’s beginning and end, yet got so enraptured by the creation of his central character that he forgot to connect the narrative dots of his “mystery” and the secondary characters involved in it. No time is spent providing any background for Andrea, Espada, or the murder victim, who exist merely as framing devices for the script’s one and only conflict. The closest the film comes to secondary character development is Bart’s mom (Helen Hunt), who gets a couple of minutes to provide a little background on her and Bart’s life, yet again, only in service to the development of the main character.

This is a pity, too, because the actors in The Night Clerk are all doing great work, and the premise is indeed sound. Cristofer makes some interesting visual choices with his shots to give the film a very static feel, much like a locked-down security camera might provide. The characters are lit with informative intent throughout the picture, and as already mentioned, Sheridan is fantastic in the lead, and does almost enough to fill in the gaps left by the narrative’s disjointed mystery elements. Again, though, this comes at the expense of all the other characters, who enjoy no such development and exist only to move the pieces of the plot towards a conclusion that is equal parts disappointing and anticlimactic.

Opening this Friday in limited release and VOD, The Night Clerk is interesting enough to keep one’s attention and is anchored by a captivating and thoughtful lead performance, yet the central mystery’s vacancy and lack of urgency ultimately holds the whole effort back. An interesting idea with all the talent needed to pull it off, the failure of the script to line up the particulars of the main conflict and the characters crucial to it keep the picture from its full potential. Just like night clerks in real life, one could sleep on this one and not miss a thing.

“Obvious Child” is the debut novel of Warren Cantrell, a film and music critic based out of Seattle, Washington. Mr. Cantrell has covered the Sundance and Seattle International Film Festivals, and provides regular dispatches for Scene-Stealers and The Playlist. Warren holds a B.A. and M.A. in History, and his hobbies include bourbon drinking, novel writing, and full-contact kickboxing.

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