Tag Archives: Helen Hunt

Late Shift

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.

For Your Queue: Hawke and roll all night, and party ev-er-y day

Skyfall comes out this week, and if you haven’t seen that, please do. But since you probably have seen that, and since our goal is to draw your attention to the jewels you may have missed, we’ll spin a John Hawkes two-fer this Tuesday morn.

Robbed of a richly deserved Best Actor Oscar nomination for his brilliant work in The Session, Hawkes plays Mark O’Brien, a poet sentenced by polio to live out his days in an iron lung. The consummate character actor can transform from dead-eyed and dangerous (Winter’s Bone) to aw-shucks sweet (HBO’s Eastbound & Down) without ever losing sight of the human soul inside the character. For The Sessions, he proves equally adept at physical transformation.

As Mark approaches middle age, he struggles with the hope to check sex off his bucket list. In walks a fearless, wonderful (and Oscar nominated) Helen Hunt, completing an ensemble that doesn’t blush at or sugarcoat this story about sex and its power in a human life.

A different type of power is on display in Martha Marcy May Marlene, with Hawkes delivering a mesmerizing performance as Patrick, a mysterious cult leader. As Patrick charms the cult’s new member (a terrific Elizabeth Olsen) Hawkes skillfully foreshadows the menacing intentions beneath Patrick’s inviting charade.

A fascinating film with a dreamlike quality, MMMM is another gem in Hawkes’s catalog.