Synopsis: While on duty, a young, socially challenged hotel clerk witnesses a murder in one of the rooms but his suspicious actions land him as the lead detective’s number one suspect
Stars: Tye Sheridan, Ana de Armas, Helen Hunt, John Leguizamo, Johnathon Schaech, Jacque Gray
Director: Michael Cristofer
Running Length: 90 minutes
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review: As a lifelong fan of all things mystery and thriller, I’ve come to know my way around a whodunit. At first, being able to decipher the plot twists and guess the solution early on in a film was frustrating because I felt I was somehow being let down by the movie not playing its cards closer to the chest. I wanted to have to work to figure it out – that’s the fun of it all, right? Well, as I kept watching over time I found that it became more interesting to see what else the film was offering up even if it couldn’t keep its secrets safe until that final reel. Often, I’d wind up appreciating performances more when I saw how they lined up with where the outcome was heading and that showed signs not of a weak script but a well-thought out one.
I mention this at the beginning of my review for The Night Clerk because the murder mystery plot that writer/director Michael Cristofer uses is well-worn and easy to solve almost from the top. I wouldn’t dare spoil it but Cristofer has not built this tale on a series of complex plot machinations and, y’know, I think that helps the movie at the end of the day because it allows for more interesting moments to emerge. Though working with a tiny budget that doesn’t call for much in the way of sets or location shooting, Cristofer has assembled an appealing cast that approaches the material as a drama first, a mystery second.
Working the late shift for a modest hotel chain, Bart Bromley (Tye Sheridan, Mud) is trying his best to overcome his socially awkward ways. Clearly on the spectrum but high functioning and living in the basement of his mother’s house, Bart has taken to hiding video cameras in the hotel rooms but not for the reasons you may think. Instead of being a peeping Tom, Bart observes the way the guests interact and models his speech patterns and conversation starters off of the topics he overhears. While he still eats the meals his mother prepares alone in the basement as she dines solo upstairs longing for her son to sit with her, you can tell he’s trying to forge some kind of connection that makes sense to him.
Thriving off his routine, Bart’s precision and order is upended after a guest is murdered while he watches remotely, unable to help, on his video monitors. He’s haunted by the event but unable to say anything to his mother (Helen Hunt, The Sessions) or the cop assigned to the case (John Leguizamo, American Ultra) who can tell Bart knows more than he’s letting on and is further perplexed by Bart’s over-interest in the homicide. Complicating things further is another guest at the hotel, a mysterious beauty (Ana de Armas, Knives Out) that seems to understand and accept Bart more than others. Is she the kind soul he’s been waiting for, or is there another plot underway that’s tied back to the earlier murder?
Surprisingly, the murder plotline and everyone associated with it (including Johnathon Schaech’s hammy overacting as a grieving widower) becomes the least interesting part of Cristofer’s film once de Armas arrives. As Andrea, at first you wonder if she’s just a figment of Bart’s imagination until you realize that isn’t the kind of movie Cristofer is trying to make. The enigmatic figure struts into Bart’s life late at night and captivates him for all the right reasons. Sure she’s beautiful but she also appears to be a genuine person and the scenes Sheridan and de Armas share are quite good and interesting to watch. It’s always a gamble when someone without autism takes on a character on the spectrum but Sheridan doesn’t make Bart a jumble of tics and clichés. He slightly overdoes it at times but for the most part, it’s an admirable take on the challenge.
Running a trim 90 minutes, the interludes with Sheridan and de Armas can’t carry the entire running length and when Cristofer attempts to pull a series of last minute twists it starts to fall apart a bit because he’s tugging at too many strings all at once. I would have been more interested in this one if it was just a drama about two people that found each other in an unlikely situation and managed to develop something interesting out of it. Introducing some seedier elements cheapens that special relationship Sheridan and de Armas create but it doesn’t take away from it fully. Worth checking this one out if you can catch it on your streaming service.