Every once in a while, someone gets lucky right out the gate. But most actors begin their careers doing time in throwaway B-movies and misbegotten programmers. The Night Clerk, for example, must have looked like a great opportunity for a pre-Knives Out Ana de Armas, who only had one big role under her belt—the holographic housewife Joi in Blade Runner 2049—when the project was announced in May 2018. The supporting cast included Helen Hunt and John Leguizamo alongside Tye Sheridan, who just starred in the Steven Spielberg blockbuster Ready Player One. And the writer-director, Michael Cristofer, was a Pulitzer winner, for goodness’ sake. So it’s a bit ironic that in hindsight The Night Clerk will be remembered, if at all, as a movie de Armas was way too good for—an unfortunate mile marker on her road to movie stardom.
It would probably be for the best if the film was just forgotten. Especially for Sheridan, who’s painfully miscast in the title role. This must have seemed like a good opportunity for him, too—a chance do some real acting as Bart Bromley, a hotel clerk with Asperger Syndrome who witnesses a murder on the overnight shift. Unfortunately, Sheridan just isn’t up to the task, turning in a performance that somehow reeks of both too much and too little effort. It’s not entirely his fault: At one point, a character checks the Wikipedia entry for Asperger’s, which pretty much reflects this film’s understanding of the disorder. People with Aspberger’s tend to have trouble with eye contact, so Sheridan pointedly, exaggeratedly avoids eye contact in dialogue scenes. Aspberger’s often manifests in unusual or rhythmic speech patterns, so Sheridan repeats a lengthy, Rain Man-esque rote response every time someone asks how he’s doing. If he’s attempting to portray a person with a stiff and unconvincing presence, he succeeded. But it’s hard to tell if that’s an intentional choice or if the performance itself is just stiff and unconvincing. In such cases, the simpler (and less flattering) explanation is probably the right one.
Bart is a peeping Tom who installs spy cameras in the rooms at the hotel where he works, a creepy thing to do that the film treats as a harmless manifestation of his condition. Sure, he’s obsessively watching female guests in various states of undress without their knowledge or consent, but he’s not a pervert or anything. He’s doing it to learn social skills! You could describe The Night Clerk, with its shallow noir plot, as a Brian De Palma movie without any of the style, but that’s probably too generous. It isn’t much of a mystery, either.
Sheridan spends much of the film stalking de Armas, who play an enigmatic hotel guest whose promiscuity, The Night Clerk reckons, can only be redeemed by the pure love of the man who secretly watches her 24/7. All the while, Bart is enabled by his doting mom, Ethel (Hunt), and pursued by homicide detective Johnny Espada (Leguizamo), who correctly intuits that Bart knows something about the murder in the first act but incorrectly assumes he did it. Both Hunt and Leguizamo go through the motions in uninteresting roles, generously making space for what is supposed to be a showcase for Sheridan. But it’s de Armas who catches the eye, giving real emotion and soul to a role that’s laden with misogynist femme fatale stereotypes.
Is it further overthinking The Night Clerk to ascribe purpose to its generic lensing and cheap production design? Bert’s supposed to work at a budget hotel chain along the lines of a Holiday Inn or Best Western, so maybe the complete lack of visual interest is intentional. But the music is embarrassingly generic as well, and the film flops around like a dying fish every time it attempts comedy or suspense, pointing toward a simple lack of vision on Cristofer’s part. That leads to the biggest question posed by The Night Clerk: Is this a director whose skills have dropped off after a nearly two-decade gap—Christofer’s last movie, Original Sin, was released in 2001—or was the skill never really there to begin with? Again, the simpler answer is usually the correct one.