“Do you ever think about sex?”
It’s doesn’t take long for Detective Espada (John Leguizamo) to grill hotel clerk Bart (Tye Sheridan) on his romantic interests. Bart has Asperger’s, and Espada quickly picks up on this by way of Bart’s bizarre speech and movement. This leads the detective, not even 5 minutes after meeting the man, to question Bart on if he’s ever had a girlfriend (he has not) if he has interests in men and his sexual history. But these invasive questions have nothing to do with why Espada is talking to Bart in the first place – someone has been murdered at the hotel and Bart is the primary witness.
The Night Clerk, part of a seemingly never-ending stream of Netflix suspense thrillers, aims to mix genre tropes with a sensitive subject matter (autism). Well, they say it’s a suspense thriller, but the only suspense I experienced was wondering how long I was going to be bored before the movie decided to entertain. That decision, unfortunately, never arrived. In addition, the film’s attempts to dramatize a very serious disorder are not only poorly handled, but at times seems like an unnecessary story addition – not a good sign when said story addition is what the movie is about.
The story revolves around the aforementioned Bart, whose condition has made him a social recluse. He lives with his mother (Helen Hunt), who makes all of his meals for him and places them on the basement steps. The only instance where he appears to go outside is to go to his job at the hotel, where he has placed cameras in the rooms to spy on patrons. The movie attempts to justify this by showing Bart using the footage solely to mimic the speech patterns of the hotel guests, in an attempt to improve his social skills. But this instance of character development doesn’t help us excuse an invasion of privacy.
Bart is relocated to a different hotel, where he meets the mysterious Andrea (Ana de Armas, who the filmmakers somehow tricked into appearing in this). There’s an unwritten rule that nothing good ever comes from an ‘Andrea’ in a crime drama, and that rule is honored here. Andrea is sultry and flirtatious, but clearly hiding a dark past. She becomes smitten with Bart, whose attraction to her combined with his desire to be accepted leads him to believe that Andrea can truly love him. But when he starts to learn more about her past, Bart questions his allegiance to her.
This is a strange film for a variety of reasons. For starters, it is exceptionally boring. Nothing particularly scandalous happens outside the first 15 minutes, and even that happens mostly off-screen and shrouded in too much backstory for us to care until the context is given later. It seems like director Michael Cristofer thought if he just mimicked the look of a typical erotic crime drama, that we’d be deceived into thinking the film is sexy, or edgy, or mysterious, or exciting (it, of course, is none of those things).
The film commits to an aesthetic of a B-movie thriller, but in the worst way possible, as the film is poorly photographed. Netflix’s streak of shitty lighting continues, and at this point, it’s no accident; the cinematographers working on these films must be actively trying to make every Netflix thriller look like a softcore porno as part of some elaborate prank. Sorry movie, your fancy overhead shot of a car driving down a street doesn’t look as impressive when the scene is flat, overexposed and there’s no contrast. That’s like eating Burger King with silverware.
The actors display very little chemistry. Part of that is by design because Sheridan’s performance is supposed to be off-putting to the other characters. But he doesn’t seem to mesh with Leguizamo or Helen Hunt, and the movie insists on pairing these characters up so their lack of chemistry is a major problem. Sheridan and Armas have a little bit of a spark, but it’s not nearly enough to carry the hackneyed plot.
I’m still not entirely sure what John Leguizamo was going for with his performance, but someone should have stepped in and told him it wasn’t working. He comes across as a perv, but it’s unclear if that’s the depiction the movie was aiming for – the film depicts him as callous, but doesn’t shine a negative light on his repeated stepping over of boundaries. But his conflict with Bart seems superfluous. His line readings are odd, making neutral statements come off as sleazy, and the character’s attempts at humor fall flat. Then there’s Helen Hunt, who damn near sleepwalks through this movie, but I can’t blame her given the material.
But of course, the biggest issue here is the depiction of autism. Tye Sheridan is a very good actor and I’m sure he did his research for the role, but the movie never justifies why this character had to have this disorder. His Asperger’s seems like an excuse for him to do shitty things and still get away with being the hero. You could argue the filmmakers legitimately wanted to highlight and examine a serious human experience that isn’t often depicted in film. But it’s hard to take that seriously when you consider the quote that opened this review. The movie is determined to go for smut over substance, it just so happens to have an autistic protagonist at the center. Bart does not need to be autistic for the events of the story to play out, and the commitment to that plot device seems more exploitative than fascinating.
But even without the unnecessary drama regarding Bart’s personality, this would still be a lame, undercooked thriller that never takes it’s characters anywhere interesting or unexpected. A comparison could be made to Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989). Not in terms of quality, God no, but in the similarity of having a complex protagonist experiencing sexual repression. But Steven Soderbergh’s film lent it’s characters’ humanity while also putting their actions in proper context, something The Night Clerk sorely lacks. This is a film that wants to be as great as the films that influenced it. But as we see with Bart himself as he watches tapes of people speaking – mimicry can’t be the real thing.