Review by Sean Boelman
Quite possibly one of the most misguided and insensitive films to come out in a long time, Michael Cristofer’s new thriller The Night Clerk would be a total dud were it not for committed efforts from its talented ensemble. Nearly but not quite unwatchable, this movie makes one wonder who thought it was a good idea in the first place.
The film follows a well-meaning hotel clerk who is on the spectrum as he finds himself the suspect of a murder investigation due to his knack for voyeurism. Like a much less intelligent version of Rear Window, the main conflict of the movie involves the protagonist witnessing a crime and trying to decide whether or not it was even his business to begin with. (His decision is as predictable as one would expect.)
The biggest (but not the first) of this film’s problems is its rather offensive treatment of autism and related disorders. The protagonist himself is a moderately accurate, if shallow depiction of someone on the spectrum, but the way in which he is treated by the other characters is the more substantial issue. Alternatingly treated like a child and the other, the movie repeatedly makes claims about the character’s intelligence but never really allows him to show it.
As a whole, the character development of the film is relatively threadbare. The movie simply doesn’t do enough to make the audience care about the protagonist. Although the viewer will be endeared to the character as a result of his disorder, he doesn’t have much of a compelling personality beyond that. The supporting characters are completely archetypal as well, from the femme fatale to the ignorant and cocky cop.
The main thing working in the favor of this film is its talented ensemble. Tye Sheridan is a very gifted performer, and while it is becoming increasingly obvious that he is going to get typecast in the same type of role — the socially awkward but skilled hero — again and again, he does it well. Ana de Armas seems comfortable as the femme fatale (this also being a common type for her), but the movie doesn’t take full advantage of her range. John Leguizamo and Diane Lane are also solid but wasted in largely insignificant roles.
The thing that holds this film back from being the schlocky fun that it otherwise could be, though, is lackluster pacing. Cristofer sets the movie up as if its supposed to contain some sort of shocking mystery when in reality, the narrative is so predictable that it contains no real surprises. Although Cristofer does a good enough job of creating a pulpy noir, it often feels like he is trying for something greater, and herein lies much of the disappointment.
In terms of execution, the film isn’t bad, but it would have benefitted from a greater sense of style. While the noir influences are evident, there are a lot of missed opportunities in the cinematography and production design. Had Cristofer played into the voyeuristic element even more, there could have been a sense of entrapment that would have brought the audience even closer to the character. Instead, the movie aims for the morally grey approach and suffers as a result.
The Night Clerk needed to be reworked from the ground level to be a satisfying thriller. The cast keeps it from being completely horrible, but it is still a misfire nonetheless.
The Night Clerk hits theaters and VOD on February 21.