While Michael Cristofer’s THE NIGHT CLERK (2020) is comprised of several exciting moments and a handful of good performances, it is a disappointingly flat and unoriginal attempt at a contemporary film noir, and fails to create the mysterious, intriguing, unnerving, and suspenseful atmosphere it promised.
When Bart (Tye Sheridan), an autistic night clerk working at a small hotel, is found next to a dead woman in one of the rooms, he becomes a prime suspect for murder.
I was quite excited for this film going in. Within the first ten minutes, I was pulled into the story by a very unsettling introduction to the lead character. However, much like a chocolate chip cookie that turns out to be a raisin cookie, it did not live up to expectation. This is mainly due to several predictable plot points and a rather unfocused and cliché storyline. In fact, as the film goes on, even the main mystery starts to feel more like a b-plot because of the way it is intercut with other storylines. In addition, many of the plot points in this film don’t seem realistic or flushed out. For example, the detective in the story feels totally incompetent at catching a killer. He misses obvious steps in an investigation, like talking to the husband and getting an alibi.
While the plot and pace of this film leave much to be desired, its strengths lie within the cast, particularly Tye Sheridan’s performance. Sheridan creates a refreshingly detailed and specific character by doing things like never making eye contact with others and moving rigidly and suddenly. His portrayal of Bart is even touching at times, creating some of the more interesting scenes of the film. Ana de Armas, who plays Bart’s love interest Andrea, is also a very charming performer. Despite her rather cliché dialogue, Armas plays her character as tender and endearing, providing a nice variety to the tone of the film.
From examining the very successfully bookended opening and closing shots, it is obvious that the filmmaker is trying to suggest that at the heart of this story is the need to belong. While the autistic and socially awkward protagonist Bart supports this theme, the rest of the story doesn’t support it. Furthermore, Bart’s transformation as a character feels underdeveloped and unprompted. Bart’s autism also doesn’t seem to elevate the film or make it more inclusive; it just feels like an excuse for a few of Bart’s ethically questionable decisions, primarily filming people without their consent.
So, is THE NIGHT CLERK worth watching? As Bart would say, “that’s a complicated question.” If you feel like a rom-com that’s also a little bit of a thriller, and you can forgive a few plot holes, then this movie is for you. It is well shot, and engaging enough to sustain your attention, if you’re not looking for something particularly exciting. However, If you feel like watching a hotel thriller that follows through on its promise of suspense and unsettling drama, I would suggest Drew Goddard’s BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE (2018) instead.