Michael Cristofer’s first movie since 2001 is a low-key thriller that respects its characters, even if its setup isn’t too original.
As a general rule, people love to watch what other people do, especially if the person they’re watching isn’t aware of it. It gives us endless fascination to see how someone else acts when they think that they’re alone. But while knowing someone’s secrets can be fun, knowledge can also be a burden. Michael Cristofer returns to the director’s chair after an almost 20-year absence to explore what happens when you see something you shouldn’t in his drama, The Night Clerk.
Bart Bromley (Tye Sheridan) likes to watch people not for unsavory reasons, but instead to learn from them. He has Asperger’s Syndrome and, to better understand human interactions, watches the guests of the hotel where he works via hidden cameras that he’s set up in the guestrooms. One night, Bart’s cameras record a woman getting murdered, causing Bart to rush to the hotel to save her. Since Bart was off at the time his appearance at his workplace rouses the suspicion of Detective Johnny Espada (John Leguizamo). While the case is being investigated, Bart is transferred to another location. There he meets and quickly becomes infatuated with guest Andrea (Ana de Armas) and as the duo bond, Bart starts to feel a little less lonely, but Andrea has secrets of her own.
Despite featuring a murder and a protagonist who records people without their consent, this is a story about loneliness and connection. Most of the plot centers on the relationship between Bart and Andrea with the crime elements being relegated to Johnny’s subplot until the climax. This isn’t a bad angle to take, but it may be a turn off for audiences who are expecting a taut thriller.
In fact, the genre bait and switch aspect to the plot is a double-edged sword. While de-emphasizing the murder and its investigation takes the story into unexpected directions, Cristofer (who also wrote the screenplay) doesn’t seem to know what to do with the detective working on the case until the final act. There are a few scenes of Johnny doing a little research on Asperger’s syndrome and having conversations about the case, but they are sparse and feel superfluous.
In contrast to the mishandled crime elements, the relationship between Bart and Andrea is much more interesting. Sheridan and Armas have great chemistry, managing to be both awkward and endearing in their interactions. Bart may have trouble with empathy or understanding Andrea’s more complex emotions, but it’s obvious that he cares for her. Andrea is a complex character, who is involved with a married man, and it’s refreshing that Bart isn’t trying to “save” her.
Depictions of people on the autism spectrum by neurotypical actors are often a contentious subject, as these portrayals have a tendency to slide into stereotypes or outright myths. Luckily, Sheridan’s performance is definitely one of the better ones. He manages to utilize common characterizations of people with Asperger’s, such as not looking people in the eye or stimming without exaggerating them. He has certain stock phrases that he repeats in conversation with the same cadence no matter the context, which gives an almost unnatural feel to his interactions with people.
Despite featuring a murder and a protagonist who records people without their consent, this is a story about loneliness and connection.
As a result, Bart’s lack of tact becomes the movie’s main source of humor. Whether it’s Bart saying that asking how he is is a “complicated question and the answer would take a long time” or a shopping montage where he insults salespeople who try to help him, the audience is meant to find his inability to read the room to be funny. This isn’t to say that he isn’t portrayed sympathetically, though. The Night Clerk shows his frustration at not knowing how to act and it’s hard not to get upset when Johnny says he suspects Bart in part because he mistakenly believes that autistic people are prone to violence.
Sheridan’s portrayal is bolstered by the supporting cast. De Armas gives Andrea a sense of vulnerability without being portrayed as “broken.” Leguizamo does a great job as an antagonist who is unwilling to work with Bart’s communication style and his aggression is a hindrance to the investigation. Also of note is Helen Hunt as Bart’s mother, Ethel, who is fiercely protective of her son. While a protective mother is common to the point of cliche in these sorts of stories, Hunt manages to make her feel like a fully rounded character instead of a stereotype.
It adds up to a good portrayal of Asperger’s (although neurodivergent critics will obviously be able to speak more on the accuracy of Bart’s character). Despite the downsides of our voyeuristic tendencies, it’s unlikely people will ever stop trying to pry into the lives of others. The lure of learning other people’s secrets is just too great. However, instead of watching others without their knowledge, it might be better to watch this film instead.
The Night Clerk checks into limited release this Friday.