In some ways, Drew Pearce’s Hotel Artemis is a pretty straightforward action-thriller. There are criminals packed together in a hotel, and eventually you know that someone is going to break the rules and all hell will break loose. But until then, it’s all about building tension, and Pearce provides a clinic on adding little twists and turns to keep ratcheting up suspense. Armed with an excellent cast and a brilliant crew, Hotel Artemis sucks you into its world and doesn’t let go until the closing credits.
Set in Los Angeles in 2028, the city is rioting over the lack of water, but in the middle of the chaos there’s the safehouse, the Hotel Artemis run by The Nurse (Jodie Foster) and her orderly Everest (Dave Bautista), which heals up a certain set of criminals (no serial killers, no pedophiles) who have a membership with the hotel. It’s a busy night as two bank robbers (Sterling K. Brown and Brian Tyree Henry) stumble in after a botched job, plus there’s the obnoxious businessman “Acapulco” (Charlie Day)—everyone goes by their room names when they stay at the Artemis—and the assassin Nice (Sofia Boutella). The Nurse’s night only gets more complicated with the arrival of a cop from her past (Jenny Slate) and the city’s crime kingpin, the Wolf King (Jeff Goldblum). The Nurse must figure out how to keep everyone alive and playing by the rules before the night goes to hell in a hand-basket.
Pearce landed himself a casting coup with this entire film. Every actor is perfect for their part, but with Foster in the lead, he really got away with something. Foster has focused largely on directing in recent years and doing supporting roles, but here she gets a role she can chew on and remind us why she’s one of the greatest actors of her generation. With the Nurse, she has to be wry, jaded, sad, conflicted, and a whole range of emotions to anchor the rest of the picture. She doesn’t get to be just colorful like Nice or Acapulco. She has to be a real human being, and Foster makes it look easy despite the heightened setting that surrounds her.
The setting shines thanks to the professionals Pearce recruited to design his madhouse. The production design from Ramsey Avery (10 Cloverfield Lane) is like a glorious art deco hellscape, both decaying and beautiful at the same time. Everything is lovingly captured by ace cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung (IT), allowing us to sink deeper into the world that Pearce has constructed. And the whole enterprise is bolstered by another terrific score from composer Cliff Martinez (Drive). Although there are some areas, particularly the fight scenes, that could have benefited from a bit more oomph, Hotel Artemis is more about lighting the fuse than setting off the explosion.
In some ways, Hotel Artemis is the perfect movie to study for aspiring screenwriters, not because it’s a masterpiece, but because it so clearly shows how to build tension and add twists and complications. Pearce starts from a solid hook—a hospital for criminals—and then he has to find ways to build it out into a feature film. The picture easily could have lost steam if he didn’t find complications—after all, a premise is not a story—but he keeps adding fuel to the fire and that allows him to make a more powerful picture. In the end, he has something that wouldn’t have been out of place in John Carpenter’s 80s oeuvre.
Where Hotel Artemis gets really clever is how it explore the nature of escapism. It’s a movie where the characters are seemingly trapped in the worst place ever—a bunch of criminals who could break the rules at any moment and start a bloodbath—and yet it’s a safe haven because the world is on fire. In this way, the Hotel Artemis is like a movie. No matter how bad things get, you kind of want to stay there because at least it has structure, rules, and it’s better than a world on fire. But that brings the movie to a heartening conclusion and shows that Pearce knows what he wants to say about the nature of escapist fare and our relationship to it. While the movie doesn’t turn the world upside down, it shows that Hotel Artemis is well worth checking into.