The Night Clerk for all its conspiracy trappings and unconventional romance motifs isn’t quite the film it wants to be. Believing itself to be a fresh take on autism, a tale for those who aren’t quite neurotypical, the misunderstood wallflowers resigned to sit and watch instead of getting involved. Despite a lead performance from Tye Sheridan that speaks volumes as to why you should give director Michael Cristofer’s film a chance, one that brings a sense of understanding to the fore of a story that isn’t nearly as compelling as it wants to be. It’s in the classic noir take on the femme fatale that The Night Clerk fumbles, despite a warm, compassionate performance by Ana De Armas. Ultimately Cristofer’s film feels like a voyeuristic slideshow where peoples actions don’t matter despite grappling with morality in a time of constant surveillance.
Bart (Sheridan) is a night clerk in a decidedly average hotel in a perfectly ordinary town. Bart however is different. Unable to connect with people because of his autism, Bart secretly films rooms of the hotel to learn how to behave by watching the patrons that come through the doors. However when a woman is murdered in one of the rooms his perfect learning system is ruined. As he attempts to return to normal he meets Andrea (De Armas), a mystery too good to pass up, one that could ruin his perfect little system for good.
While director Michael Cristofer’s film is self assured in its execution and smart in its handling of Bart’s autism, as the film progresses it uses the fact he isn’t neurotypical as a crutch, a justification for a story that that never quite feels right. Bart knows his actions are wrong but through some questionable plotting, Christofer justifies this voyeuristic tale while still maintaining Bart’s inherent kindness. Despite being for research, the kind of fruitless learning that Bart thinks he can achieve through turning hotel rooms into his own personal zoo attractions, his subjects, despite the brief cameos of male subjects are almost entirely young attractive women, with Christofer asserting that its fine to leer over young unsuspecting women, but only if it is for learning purposes. Even his mother seems to be fine with this proclivity towards what is essentially a stones throw away from stalking.
This creates a serious imbalance in a story that is already struggling between multiple genres. Bart might just mean well but the film around him speaks differently. Playing like a modern noir thriller, this story is set almost entirely in sterile hallways. The bright, colourful surroundings of Bart’s story conflict with what The Night Clerk is trying to convince you it is. In fact this feels like a warm twisted romance rather than the crime thriller it proclaims to be. While it is impossible to see how this was intentional, with the end throwing in a wannabe Maltese Falcon twist to further solidify its noir status, The Night Clerk finds sparkles of interest outside of its design. Both Sheridan and De Armas are terrific but its their friendship, the way they visibly change over the course of the film that stops Christofer’s story from devolving into a B movie mess.
However the way Andrea flips constantly from classic Femme Fatale to controlled woman seeking her freedom however possible shows the central worry at the centre of Cristofer’s script. The constant desire to make his two leads walking question marks so that the films ending comes almost as a suprise means that at no point does he actually figure out who they are. Especially Andrea, instead making her content to be a woman manipulated, never acknowledging the why of her story. De Armas is constricted by a backstory that is never fleshed out, from her little known relationship with a married man, one that is only ever portrayed as crudely sexual, never anything more, to her own autistic sibling, a convenient bonding device, mentioned once and never again.
However the real distressing moment comes midway through the film when the film feels it has earned some leeway when it comes to the subject of autism, enough so that it decides to come completely off the rails and use it as some painfully unaware punchline, a joke at Bart’s expense and nobody elses, even if it is filmed like a comedic aside designed specially for an audience that doesn’t want or need it. Entirely comprised to cringe at, this moment, ripped straight from the Spider-Man 3 playbook breaks any sense of self The Night Clerk has in favour of something just plain weird.
While it fits the noir category with its Lives of Others voyeur storytelling, its a film stuck between kind hearted ‘romance’ and dark thriller but because of the uninspired locations and constant literal brightness it is impossible to see the crime here. While it is worth watching for the central relationship at the films core as Bart and Andrea genuinely make an authentic and likable pairing, one for whom Sheridan and De Armas provide a compelling chemistry, the rest squanders their abilities in a messy film devoid of consequences or meaning.
The Night Clerk feels like the clumsy outing of a first time director, full of promise and signs of better things to come. Cristofer, despite his decades crafting stories here feels like he had something but didnt give it enough time to prove. A first draft that, with a little more time in the development oven might have actually turned into something really tasty.