The Night Clerk
by Hope Madden
Any film centering on a character on the Autism spectrum is risking a lot. It’s far too easy to simplify this character to a handful of tics that lend themselves to a narrative device: Mercury Rising, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Forest Gump. (That’s right. I said it.)
But if it’s done well, if the character is a character and not a narrative device, the film can benefit immeasurably.
The Night Clerk falls somewhere in between these two options.
Writer/director Michael Cristofer leans on a committed cast, including the always wonderful Tye Sheridan in the lead, to pull you into a mystery thriller that may be too simple for its own good.
Sheridan is Bart. He works nights at a hotel near his home and in his off hours he practices. He rehearses human interaction, small talk. He and his mother (Helen Hunt, a touching mixture of brittle and tender) live day to day in what has clearly become well-worn patterns. Most nights at work are probably uneventful, but on this particular night, Bart discovers a murder.
The detective on the case (John Leguizamo) suspects Bart, but Bart is distracted by a kind hearted and lovely new guest (a convincing Ana de Armas).
Without Sheridan’s committed performance, the film would fall apart. At no point does Sheridan, Cristofer or this film condescend to Bart. The audience isn’t one step ahead of the character; we are piecing through the mystery along with him. We aren’t asked by the film to pity Bart but to be frustrated along with him, and Sheridan is up to the task of keeping this character from tipping into martyrdom.
The problem with this film is not the characterization of a young man with Asperger syndrome. The issue is the writing.
Cristofer may nail the characters—and for the most part, with the help of talented performers, he does. But the lapses in logic when it comes to the policework, not to mention the basic simplicity of the plot itself, keeps the film from really engaging or staying with you.
The plot feels almost too uncomplicated to be a TV drama let alone a feature film. Tensions over the outcome never rise above a flutter, and regardless of how strong the performances—de Armas, Hunt and Sheridan, in particular—this is a thriller that rarely manages to generate any real tension.
As a character study it’s intriguing, sometimes comical and certainly respectful. It’s a showcase for solid acting, but not much else.