Murder Cam: "The Night Clerk" solidly acted but not much of a thriller

The Night Clerk (2020)
90 min.
Release Date: February 21, 2020 (Limited & VOD)

Pulitzer Prize-winning scribe Michael Cristofer is back to directing features two decades after 2001’s sultry Angelina Jolie-Antonio Banderas potboiler “Original Sin” with his character-based thriller “The Night Clerk.” As a noir thriller, it's obvious and only operates at a low simmer. When it comes to the whodunit aspect of the story, the answer is not complicated, particularly if one is attuned to casting and Roger Ebert’s Law of Economy of Characters, meaning any seemingly extraneous character is probably the antagonist in question. With that said, "The Night Clerk" works more effectively as a study in human loneliness.

23-year-old Bart Bromley (Tye Sheridan) is an idiot savant, crippled by the social challenges of Asperger’s syndrome. He lives in the basement of his mother’s (Helen Hunt) house, always eating his meals alone before going off to work as a night-shift receptionist at a hotel from 8 p.m. to 4 a.m. One night, a pretty woman (Jacque Gray) needs a room, and Bart gives her one in which he has installed hidden spy cams to study human behavior, practicing and imitating how people talk. When the woman has a man enter her room, it seems like a sexual fantasy playing out, until she is killed and left bloodied on the floor. As Bart gets more involved than he should with the crime, police detective Johnny Espada (John Leguizamo) doesn’t believe Bart’s alibi. It’s not until Bart gets transferred to work the desk at a different hotel location, where he meets Andrea Rivera (Ana de Armas), a young woman who seems to understand Bart more than anyone since she had a brother with Asperger’s. Could Bart’s friendship with Andrea lead him down the wrong path?

How a character with Asperger’s syndrome and the social tics are respectfully handled on screen is hard to say, but Tye Sheridan (2018’s “Ready Player One”) does imbue the role of Bart with nuance and sympathy, forming more of a character than a plot device. Bart isn’t so much a Peeping Tom, even if what he is doing would be considered voyeuristic, as much as he is just trying to learn to interact with others. Ana de Armas (2019’s “Knives Out”) emanates a disarming warmth as Andrea, who's hard to pin down as a likely femme fatale, and how Andrea's interactions with Bart develop are more interesting than the back-burner murder plot. John Leguizamo is reliable as the suspicious detective, and Helen Hunt (2019’s “I See You”) is touching in a pretty menial part as Bart’s mother. If this is Michael Cristofer’s homage to “Rear Window,” it lacks suspense and visual panache, but since “The Night Clerk” is solidly acted from such a fine cast, it just makes you wish it were better had the script redirected its focus.

Grade: C +