New VOD Releases: The Night Clerk (2020) - Reviewed

As we've come to understand more about the Autism spectrum, one would think depictions in media would become a little more sensitive. Especially when it's been over 30 years since Rain Man. In some ways, we have grown in that regard, the best example being television's The Good Doctor which, by accounts from people on the spectrum, does a relatively good job portraying someone living with Autism. Unfortunately, Michael Cristofer's thriller shows we still have a long way to go.

Bart Bromley (Tye Sheridan) is a hotel clerk with Aspergers (this term is largely being phased out by experts but depending on when the film was shot, it might not have been widely known at that point) who works the night shift. He spends his time watching camera feeds from the hotel rooms that he's set up, unbeknownst to his bosses and patrons, as a way to study human interaction. One night he witnesses a murder and through a combination of the detective (a bored-to-tears John Leguizamo) misunderstanding Autism and Bart being in the wrong place/wrong time, he becomes the number one suspect.

On paper, a voyeuristic thriller through the eyes of someone trying to understand social interaction could be dynamite. Couple that with a character piece on somebody on the spectrum and there's a lot of potential here. Unfortunately, Cristofer (who also wrote the script) isn't able to balance any of his moving parts. 

The single biggest mistake he makes is that he simply doesn't give Bart an internal life. Bart is a conduit to the rest of the movie and nothing else. He doesn't need to be on the spectrum because the film does almost nothing with it. What it does do is make him the prime suspect in a murder because he's "creepy." It's a bad choice made by a filmmaker who doesn't seem to fully understand what he's doing.

 Sheridan's performance is mostly underplayed which is a nice surprise but when he does fall prone to tics, it's hard to watch. It's not a balanced performance. There's just nothing to Bart. Any commentary about how we treat people with Autism is mostly ignored in favor of a dull thriller. It's even worse that said dull thriller has twists and turns that you see coming as soon as we meet our primary cast. A predictable thriller isn't inherently a problem, it can be fun to be ahead of a movie when it's moving along with you. It's that Cristofer injects this with no personality, has almost nothing to say and his lead is a flatly written and performed vessel. Even worse, many of Bart's social miscues are played for laughs. In one painful exchange, he tells a man that his obesity is going to kill him.

"I'm not obese."

"But you're fat."

Who is this for? Is it funny because Bart doesn't understand that saying this to somebody is wrong? Is it funny because the man is fat? It ends up turning both into a joke and is endemic to how Cristofer chooses to portray Bart. How this is still happening, I'll never understand. 

Thank god for burgeoning superstar Ana de Armas. Armas plays Andrea, a woman Bart meets after being moved to a new hotel following the events of the murder and pending the investigation. Andrea is immediately kind and empathetic to Bart, the only person in the film who is other than his mother (a "why am I here?" Helen Hunt). Andrea is another thinly written character because she exists for Bart to fall in love with. Her kindness is mostly genuine but you can see her motivation from a mile away. However, Armas plays her with so much nuance and dimension that when she's on screen, the film crackles with the tension it lacks everywhere else. From the moment she walks in, about 25-30 minutes in, everything just gets better. So much so, that when she's not on screen, you lose almost all interest. It's so easy to see why Armas has been slotted as Hollywood's "Next Big Thing." She's staggeringly good in a film that absolutely does not deserve her. 

I wouldn't call The Night Clerk offensive but it's yet another film that uses Autism as a plot device and not much else. In trying to be a technology-based thriller, a character study and a commentary on how we treat people, it fails by every metric. It's not thrilling, it doesn't give us a lick of insight into our lead and it has nothing to say. It's a hollow film that exploits Autism with no real understanding. If you'd like to see maybe the last middling straight-to-VOD flick Ana de Armas is forced to participate in before she reached the A-List (this was shot either around or before Knives Out), it's a dull curiosity. Otherwise, don't waste your time.

-Brandon Streussnig