In late November 2008, the Indian city of Mumbai found itself under attack by armed gunmen who proceeded to go into random places like gas stations and train stations and just shoot whatever poor souls were inside. There was a terrifying element of randomness to their already horrifying actions, nobody was safe from their rampage. These gunmen eventually found their way to the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, a lavish location where both guests and staff now found themselves under attack. The movie “Hotel Mumbai” follows a number of individuals, including employee Arjun (Dav Patel) and newly minted father David (Armie Hammer), as they try to survive all the bloodshed occurring in the middle of this real-life tragedy.
“Hotel Mumbai” is a movie that sacrifices humanity for intensity. It’s a pervasively grim exercise that depicts the horrors perpetrated by these gunmen in an appropriately bleak fashion that does result in a fair share of harrowing sequences. In the middle of making all of the carnage committed by these gunmen so ghastly though, director Anthony Maras and screenwriter John Collee forgot to make any of the characters trapped in this situation, actual three-dimensional people. All of the figures in this script are cannon fodder than characters and that’s a critical mistake that ends up tripping up the whole movie. The entire endeavor ends up feeling emptier than it should, it’s a whole lot of misery without any substantive themes, character work or even just an evocative mood that can make the pervasive presence of misery impactful on the viewer.
Filmmakers like Ingmar Bergman, Lynne Ramsey and Pawel Pawlikowski know how to make movies with far darker tones than “Hotel Mumbai” that manage to put their morose tones to good use on thoughtful contemplations on human experiences or captivating atmospheres. Here, it’s as if Maras expects a barrage of shots vividly depicting the gruesome demises of various innocent civilians to inherently provide a larger meaning to the motion picture and it just doesn’t happen. Something like “You Were Never Really Here” doesn’t become as haunting as it does because it simply shows something brutal happening, there are numerous other factors at work in that movie from the editing to the performances to the cinematography to the fact that it leaves much of its gruesomeness off-screen that help make it such a powerfully disturbing experience.
By contrast, “Hotel Mumbai’s” somber tone lacks boldness in execution, the countless interchangeable sense of intense gunfire and bloody demises end up feeling like the worst possible jump-scare; startling at the moment but forgettable the moment it ends. What little character-based moments we do get tend to be so poorly done that they make me almost grateful the script otherwise eschews characterization altogether. This rare moment of characterization occurs in a pair of back-to-back scenes in the second act involving the same racist old white lady that is clearly trying to flesh out some of the trapped guests and bring them closer together but they’re so clumsily handled in both writing performances and writing that they end up being as uncomfortable to watch as some of the gruesome violent sequences.
Also landing as awkward rather than effective in execution are some moments of humor coming from a Russian character played by Jason Isaacs, including one groan-worthy bit that feels like it was stolen from a hackey sitcom where his character loudly asks about the size of an escorts nipples in a fancy hotel restaurant. Isaacs does what he can in such a thankless role while Dev Patel and Armie Hammer similarly do their best with their underwritten characters. Patel, in particular, gets shamefully wasted in a part that has him spending at least half-an-hour of the movie just sitting around in a barricaded security room as if he’s waiting on some depth for his character that will, much like Godot in “Waiting for Godot”, never come.
On a production level, “Hotel Mumbai” is decently put together with director Anthony Maras certainly showing a clear grasp on how to film coherent suspenseful sequences. However, much of its shaky-cam camerawork feels derivative of the kind of camerawork one would see in a Paul Greengrass movie while the editing has a tendency to undercut more suspenseful moments. Maybe such elements won’t be as much of a hindrance to some viewers and more power to those who get swept up in the harrowing atmosphere of this particular feature. As for me, I just couldn’t help but feel like Hotel Mumbai was more of a chore to sit through than something that as actually dramatically compelling. There are far better places to stay if you’re looking for a bleak cinematic exploration of real-world tragedies.
“Hotel Mumbai” begins playing in Texas theaters on March 29th.