Just because you’re watching a movie on Netflix or Prime doesn’t necessarily mean it’s cinema, in the sense that, you’re watching a carefully crafted film directed with utmost precision, shot after shot, frame after frame. Filmmaking is a challenging feat, and to make a good film requires a lot of variables to fall in your favor throughout the process. The Night Clerk, written and directed by Michael Cristofer (The Witches of Eastwick), though produced by a film group and distributed by a movie studio, maintains a style educed by what one would see on a television network. Watching something cinematic doesn’t necessarily pertain to sitting in a theater within a vast multiplex. You can watch something cinematic in your home, but drive to the movie theater and view a film that doesn’t contain cinematic qualities. The difference between watching cinema and watching a movie is perfectly explained by the legendary film director, Martin Scorsese, “Cinema is a matter of what’s in the frame and what’s out.” We receive a lot of information in the frames of The Night Clerk, which results in an overall movie that lacks cinematic ideas.
The Night Clerk opens with black and white surveillance footage showing a hotel clerk, Bart Bromley (Tye Sheridan) accessing different cameras on various monitors from multiple hotel rooms. He views the occupants in a voyeuristic manner while mocking every guest as if he has some sort of disorder, to which we learn, he suffers from Asperger Syndrome – a disorder that affects the ability of an individual to socialize properly. We think he’s sitting in some sort of ‘loss prevention’ room with multiple monitors as he views the surveillance, until we realize it’s literally the basement of his mother’s home. His mother, Ethel (Helen Hunt) serves him food on the stairway in the basement, like he’s a pet animal. But she’s not torturing him, the Asperger syndrome has achieved insane heights as Bart can’t muster up the confidence to dine with his mother in the living room of their own home.
Bart doesn’t know how to communicate with people and he uses his illegal voyeuristic surveillance tactics to learn how to carry conversations. He has to place hidden cameras in every hotel room because he’s a creep who’s about to get involved in a murder that takes place. The thought of other hotel clerks around the nation who engage in this behavior is maddening. But this creep named Bart is also highly intelligent, spewing facts as if stored in his brain like an encyclopedia. When Bart becomes the prime suspect of a murder that takes place of a woman named Karen Perretti (Jacque Gray), he becomes the target of Detective Espada (John Leguizamo) who knows Bart has something up his sleeve – the surveillance footage he illegally recorded, of none other than Espada’s partner, Detective Perretti (Johnathon Schaech) who was in the room when his wife Karen was murdered. What a small world, and how convenient, that all of these characters’ lives intertwine – the detective assigned to the case is also investigating the death of his partner’s wife. Bart’s hands get bloody after he panics, driving from his mother’s basement back to the hotel room to save Karen, but it’s too late, and now he’s a prime suspect.
There are hidden cameras everywhere in these hotel rooms. From the smoke detectors on the ceiling to hidden behind mirrors, Bart watches Karen in her room while eating quarts of ice cream. After Bart thinks he sees Karen getting hurt, he drives back to the hotel and just before he enters the room, a gunshot fires. He tries to remove the memory cards from all the hidden cameras installed in the room, once his co-worker reveals that the police are coming. Bart inadvertently drops one memory card from the outlet in the wall. Detective Espada discovers the memory card and sees on the video with Perretti that the bottom of a man’s feet enter the room before Karen dies. They both believe it was Bart who commited the murder. Detective Espada questions Bart, learns he suffers from Asberger Syndrome through Bart’s one sided, long winded speeches. Bart’s boss, Ron (Joey Miyashima) transfers him to a new hotel location to work as a clerk. Ron seems to be the only person who understands how to communicate with Bart.
It’s not long until the mysterious and provocative Andrea Rivera (Ana de Armas) checks in at his new hotel, and Bart begins to put her under the same surveillance techniques. Bart fears she could be a similar victim like Karen. The plot thickens here, as we’re still unaware who murdered Karen. We can’t fathom why Andrea develops a crush on Bart, but it’s implausible enough for us to believe she has something up her sleeve too. Bart begins to slowly, and surely, fall in love with her. Ana de Armas performs her role of Andrea similar to her portrayal of Bell in Eli Roth’s Knock Knock (2015) where she played a dangerously seductive woman. Her porcelain doll face and captivating eyes can easily distract you from attempting to decipher what her true intentions are.
The Night Clerk contains a lot of surveillance footage, with cameras mounted up high in room corners and low, practically floor level angles. Jacque Gray’s performance as Karen was stellar even though it was short lived. The scenes between Ana de Armas and Tye Sheridan drag, but it’s watchable because it’s hard not to look at her. Her English accent is fresh and her voice is pleasant. Her facial expressions are incredibly difficult to read, resulting in a seductive performance.
The Night Clerk is a bizarre crime mystery with hints of romance and drama. Michael Cristofer emphasizes Bart’s social development disorder of Asperger Syndrome throughout the film, especially in a dark humored scene that shows Bart being brutally honest with everyone he encounters, not out of boldness and confidence, but merely because he lacks proper social skills. Bart doesn’t understand that just because someone is obese, that doesn’t give you the right to call them out on the host of illnesses that will come with that morbid condition. He tells an elderly stylist he won’t wear the chosen clothes because the stylist is a senior citizen who has antiquated tastes in fashion. Bart tells a barber that he can only touch his hair and not his skin. These instances derived from Bart’s social disorder reveal that ‘normal’ people who have social skills are in fact being artificial amid their conversations with one another by refraining from telling one another the truth, because the truth hurts; the truth is rude. In order to succeed in society, one must be polite, civil and/or cordial. In order to behave in these ways, one must develop the habit of being fake. Because if you’re brutally honest like Bart, they’ll send you to the basement. The Night Clerk is an original movie revolving around the world of a disorderly character and his voyeuristic tendencies, but ultimately it falls short in misguided, predictable ways. However, it does remind us who the real voyeuristic people in the world are; not hotel clerks who watch hidden cameras, but, in fact, audiences who watch movies. Is that not what filmgoers are doing? Sitting in dark rooms, stuffing their faces with popcorn and ice cream, while spying on people on-screen?