In “The Night Clerk,” Tye Sheridan and a very busy Ana de Armas star as a hotel clerk with Asperger’s and the solicitous beauty who shows up after a murder. The chemistry between Sheridan and de Armas is involving. The casting of Helen Hunt as a enabling mother and John Leguizamo as a police detective holds promise. And some of the choices by writer-director Michael Cristofer and cinematographer Noah Greenberg intrigue. But the thriller — in theaters, on demand and available via digital HD on Feb. 21 — never tips into must-catch territory.
Even before the death of a woman checked into the hotel, things get very strange very quickly. Bart (Sheridan) spies on the guests, sometimes on his laptop during the nighttime hours at the suites-style hotel. More often, as he sits in his basement-level apartment surveying an array of monitors that capture different angles on the mundane actions of travelers: A guy confirms a meeting; a mom asks her rambunctious kids to settle down; another guest gently scolds her dog. “Boy, oh boy, oh boy.” Bart repeats her phrase more than once.
Bart lives with his mother, who occupies the main floor of a bungalow. She puts his meals on the top of the stairs for him to grab. They eat together apart, her sitting at the dining room, him in his apartment, watching her on screen. Played with whetted concern and a drawn mouth, Hunt depicts a woman who loves, protects, and stymies her 23-year-old son.
One night, a woman arrives late to the hotel. After a sweet-awkward exchange with Bart, she heads to her room. When Bart gets home, he watches as she lets a man in from the garden-level door. When things take a turn toward the violent, Bart rushes back to the hotel. He’s too late to save her but right on time to become a suspect.
Det. Espada (Leguizamo) meets with the murdered woman’s husband (Johnathon Schaech). (They seem to know each other.) But the gum-chomping, dogged cop just can’t let go of his sense that something isn’t quite on the up-and-up with Bart. It doesn’t help that Bart’s a truly lousy liar.
When Bart is relocated to another hotel, the arrival of another woman complicates matters — plot-wise and romantically. De Armas elicits sympathy for the enigmatic Andrea, whose kindness, straightforwardness, enhance her appeal. They also tweak our hopes for Bart and own wariness about her.
In the film’s production notes, writer-director Michael Cristofer (whose list of awards include a Pulitzer and Tony as well as an Emmy) mentions a nephew who has Asperger’s. Here, he tries to mesh firsthand empathy with his curiosity about how easy — an inexpensive — technology has made it for regular folk to spy. Why Bart has wired the rooms with cameras turns voyeurism on its head. His aims aren’t prurient so much as educational. And, yet, they remain troubling, until the film’s surprisingly moving resolution.
Sheridan delivers a sincere, studied performance. Bart often swivels his head when talking. His presses his arms ramrod against his body. He works to avoid eye contact — especially with women. Unfiltered truth-telling is among the traits of Asperger’s and scenes of Bart eschewing the niceties are played for tenderness as well as laughs. Still, how you feel about Sheridan’s approach may depend on how much you trust films that attempt to get into the skin of unusual protagonists. So often they render them even more Other.
From the murdered woman to Andrea to a flummoxed fragrance counter advisor, women tend to take a nurturing stance toward Bart’s mannerisms. The fellas, not so much. (An exception: his benevolent boss.) A coworker arriving to relieve Bart early in the film is dismissive. Interviewed later, that same guy describes finding Bart next to the dead body in ways that make Bart sound, to borrow his word, “creepy.” Bart’s unconventional behavior is de facto cause for suspicion.
Is he the killer? Well that’s more Det. Espada’s concern than ours. And the police procedural aspects of “The Night Clerk” are as second-rate as the detective’s investigation. But the movie’s more emotional quandaries compel: Will Bart get hurt? Is Andrea’s affection authentic? Do people on the spectrum dream of eye contact? And Sheridan and de Armas’s scenes together leave an impression long after the rest of the movie evaporates.