Like it or not, there’s something carnal and entirely compelling about voyeurism. From trainwrecks to Peeping Toms, gazes can be easily fixated by the energy of those moments. There is an addictive draw that can be interest, mystery, surprise, titillation, or all of the above. The invasive level of wrongness in watching something you are likely not meant to see is measured by what one is doing or getting out of these observations. That’s a bit of the hook of The Night Clerk which allows a little gray hue on that potential wrongness.
Bart Bromley, played by Ready Player One’s lead Tye Sheridan, is a 23-year-old guest reception worker at a mid-range suburban hotel. When we meet him, Bart is sitting in front of a collection of large computer monitors observing recorded security footage from his place of work. However, the views are not all hallways and lobbies. Certain camera angles have him peering into guest rooms unbeknownst to whoever is on camera. They appear rigged through mirrors and device outlets. Here is where what the person is doing or getting out of this voyeurism comes into play.
As Bart is watching these people, he is repeating their words and captured conversations. He is practicing cadence and imitating voices, inflections, and ticks of body language. It doesn’t matter the gender. Bart is trying all the behaviors out. When he steps into public, we see him trying these lines and moves out. What he isn’t doing is getting himself off. Why? To echo Bart’s own go-to deflection, “that’s a very complicated question and it could take a long time to answer.”
You see, Bart has Asperger syndrome and its matching functional traits. Many individuals with this developmental disorder can maintain jobs, drive cars, and plenty more. Bart and his monitor setup reside in his protective mother Ethel’s (Oscar winner Helen Hunt) home. Social interactions are a huge hurdle and repetitive behaviors are comfort zones. What Bart is absorbing through his voyeurism is how to tame and improve his communication skills.
Just about at the point where you squint and pause if that seemingly helpful purpose is alright or not for invading privacy, one of Bart’s camera configurations captures a struggle between a well-to-do blond female hotel guest (Jacque Gray) and an unknown male visitor. Bart scrambles to arrive and stop the struggle when a shot rings out and the woman is dead on the floor. Bart is first on the scene and blankly direct when the authorities arrive, led by Detective Espada (John Leguizamo, playing this half-coy/half-burnout) and the victim’s husband, Nick Perretti (Jonathan Schaech). No matter his medical label, you’re damn right he’s a suspect and rightfully so.
Come to think about this setting; it’s quite amazing how much of your life is in the hands of people like clerks, hosts, greeters, secretaries, and other front-line customer service employees. You see their name tag and welcoming smile and readily hand over your personal or financial information. They sit behind a desk with every key between them, strangers, outside forces, and your indefensible state in their location. That’s some unreliable trust. The Night Clerk puts just enough creep and suspicion into this predicament to stir plenty of conjecture worth hanging around to figure out.
The final combustible element and possibly the next person caught in this escalating web of mystery is the vampish moll Andrea Rivera, played by red hot Knives Out and Blade Runner 2049 ingenue, Ana de Armas. Descending upon Bart’s transferred new lodging post, her smoky allure (which she makes look easy) and kindly understanding of his peculiarity have the young man smitten. The plot thickens when the man seemingly controlling her is the same man Bart saw during the earlier murder.
The Night Clerk is an intriguing little burner from long-lost filmmaker and Mr. Robot actor Michael Cristofer. This is his first directorial effort in 19 years since 2001’s tawdry erotic Angelina Jolie vehicle Original Sin after the cult hit Body Shots and Jolie’s brilliant HBO breakout Gia before that. Time and tastes have softened this kind of material which would have been fittingly sexualized for late-night pay cable channels or the Paul Verhoeven crowd. On the one hand, The Night Clerk is missing some of that possible pulp and edginess to really widen our eyes and drop our jaws. Instead, it takes on the calculated challenge of weaving a layer of empathy for the main character to override the egregious errors of consent. In doing so, the movie feigns sophistication when it really doesn’t exude it.
The real score is Tye Sheridan, following up one odd indie performance in The Mountain with another one here. In a place where so many screenwriters and performers alike dial-up far too many quirks for the sake of quirks to portray people on the autism spectrum, Cristofer and Sheridan compose one of the best and most consistent performances of this character type in recent memory. Sheridan’s ticks ranging from demure courtesy to blunt honesty are the right level of subtlety and delivered with measured restraint. His character may find himself in a mess, but he is never the mess. This is very impressive work from Sheridan, especially for this class of film.