“The Night Clerk” is a murder mystery with a killer premise. A man with Asperger’s witnesses a killing.
The movies and TV, which have treated this as a “Malady of the Month” for a few years now, teach us what to expect. Such a man, with his social awkwardness, manic chatter and refusal to make eye contact, would be an exasperating suspect and a maddening witness.
And if this thriller lacks much in the way of tension and suspense, if it loses track of the “crime” while it tries to flesh out the title character, a fine cast lifts the material and makes it worth your trouble.
Tye Sheridan (“Ready Player One”) is Bart, short for “Bartholomew,” a 23 year-old who has held onto an overnight desk clerk at a nice hotel for a few years. He is smart, even if his social skills are classic “on the spectrum” clumsy.
But Bart has applied his tech savvy to his “problem.” He wears a tiny camera in his tie in order to review and “correct” his inept interactions with the customers.
“How’s it going?” requires rehearsal. “Have a nice evening” is worth running through a few times, too.
Bart lives in his Mom’s basement, where she (Helen Hunt) gives him his space, leaves his meals on the steps and doesn’t watch him in front of his bank of video monitors. That’s a good thing, because Bart isn’t just about self-improvement.
Bart’s made the leap to the next step. He’s slipped cameras into hotel rooms, spying on guests, memorizing how they act with their dogs — “Boy oh boy oh boy, what did you DO?” — and as often as not, getting a peep show in the process.
That’s how he witnesses a murder. He can see it unfolding, an angry confrontation between a woman (Jacque Gray) and someone we assume is her cheating husband. Bart gapes at the violence, freaks out a bit and dashes back to work only get get there after the shot is fired.
She’s dead. He sits on her bed, hears “Don’t touch anything” from the other clerk,” and the moment the guy’s gone to call the cops, dabs his finger in the pool of blood surrounding her body.
John Leguizamo plays the detective who sizes Bart up, tries to get a rise out of him even as the clerk is blurting out his elaborate cover for why he was there.
“And that’s the story? I know you’ve got issues…”
Oscar winner Hunt summons up her best Mamma Bear, fending off the cops. What does she know? What will they find out?
Bart, seemingly freaked out by the events as they happened, now has refocused his mind on his cover-up. And then another guest — played by Ana de Armas of “Knives Out,” — beautiful and inclined to be empathetic to his condition (“My brother had it.”) becomes his focus.
Actor turned writer-director Michael Cristofer collected a Tony and a Pulitzer for his play “The Shadow Box” over 40 years ago. His screen career has been spotty, with “Original Sin,” a thriller with similar bones starring Banderas and Jolie the stand-out credit.
He gives Sheridan the standard-issue “Asperger’s/On the Spectrum” tics and give-away moments — blurting out “You need to lose weight” to a car salesman, “I don’t want to wear anything you’d wear…because you’re old” to a haberdasher.
The scenes between Bart and Andrea have a pained confessional quality, and “brother had it” or no, seem a bit contrived.
The picture’s nocturnal gloom serves it well, matching the creep tone of young-guy-who-likes-to-“watch” story. Cristofer doesn’t do much with the “mystery,” and suspense is reserved for those moments when we wonder if Bart will just watch, or take action.
The dialogue is serviceable but generic in scene after scene. But Hunt, Leguizamo, Sheridan and de Armas put it over with feeling and let their eyes and investment in the characters do the heavy lifting.
If “The Night Clerk” rises above “near miss” status, that’s thanks to the cast.
MPAA Rating: R for language, some sexual references, brief nudity and violent images
Cast: Tye Sheridan, Ana de Armas, Helen Hunt, John Leguizamo, Johnathan Schaech and Jacque Gray.
Credits: Scripted and directed by Michael Cristofer. A Saban Films release.
Running time: 1:30