A raw and gripping thriller based on the real-life terrorist attack on Mumbai in 2008, Hotel Mumbai focuses primarily on the general human carnage and needless tragedy that any kind of terrorism causes. Anthony Maras’ film is not interested in the ideological or political complexities behind what caused the attack; it wisely focuses on the human toll.
The occasional references to the terrorists’ warped idea of their faith are used to further hammer home the fact that such atrocities hurt everyone, regardless of race, nationality and religion. A poignant sequence shows one of the terrorists clearly shocked that his target for execution is a Muslim. He’s been told his whole life that the “other side” can’t be part of his faith, and has to reckon with taking the life of a “non-infidel” to further his cause. It’s a slice of morbid irony that such inhuman acts carried out in the name of ideological purity end up being senseless, equal opportunity acts of violence.
That’s not to imply that the intention here is to provide an academic treatise on the social harms of terrorism. Hotel Mumbai is first and foremost a stringently researched and uncompromising procedural, the primary goal of which is to recreate the horrifying two-day struggle for survival by the guests and staff of the prestigious Hotel Mumbai while terrorists indiscriminately kill everyone they find. First-time feature director Maras shows great promise as a future helmer of gritty and grounded thrillers (à la Paul Greengrass) with his stylistically restrained but viscerally striking execution.
Maras applies a raw docudrama look without going too over the top with the shaky-cam. The violence is always sudden and shocking, the way it is in real life, right down to the sound editing of the gunfire. There’s a refreshing lack of dramatic embellishment, at least during the blood-drenched sequences. Even with the murder of central characters played by famous or familiar actors, the camera doesn’t linger on the tragedy with slow-motion Oscar-bait tricks to extract artificial tears and shocks from the audience. The kills happen suddenly, mostly using straight wide shots, and the narrative immediately moves on. Without this emotional flair, Maras puts the audience into the real-life random horror of the terrorist act.
The same unfortunately can’t be said about some dramatic scenes. There are some tear-jerking moments where time slows down and the string section in Volker Bartelmann’s score goes into overdrive. (Thankfully, there aren’t many of them.) There are also some odd pacing decisions with too-frequent cuts to establishing shots of the hotel, being burned by the attackers. Not only do these cutaways distract from the otherwise heart-pounding tempo, but it draws too much attention to the obvious CG fire elements added to the footage. Hotel Mumbai is a two-hour film that could have benefited from a more intimate and tighter 100-minute cut.
Dev Patel is front-and-center in the cast, yet this isn’t a vehicle for him the way the 2016 drama Lion was. This is an ensemble piece, and Patel’s character is not a hero, but a bystander just as panicked as everyone. The character does have a couple of heroic moments, but they are not pieces of “movie heroism,” but those forced upon anyone stuck in such a terrifying situation. (The same goes for Armie Hammer, who plays an architect striving to get to his baby, which is trapped in another room.) Hotel Mumbai may not be a perfect example of its genre, but its restraint from ideological grandstanding and a top-notch technical control of tone make it worthy of a watch.
Director: Anthony Maras
Writer: John Collee, Anthony Maras
Starring: Dev Patel, Armie Hammer, Nazanin Boniadi, Anupam Kher, Jason Isaacs, Vipin Sharma
Release Date: March 29, 2019
Oktay Ege Kozak is a screenwriter, script coach and film critic. He lives near Portland, Ore., with his wife, daughter, and two King Charles Spaniels.