Drew Pearce’s Hotel Artemis is a stylized character piece less concerned with action in a dramatic sense and more concerned with the actions of its characters. It is a movie worth seeing simply because of its unique blend of actors. The result is a gas that looks pretty and is never dull.
Hotel Artemis reminds me a lot of the John Wick movies. Those movies show us a world of rule breakers who stringently adhere to their own set of rules. Hotel Artemis does the same thing almost, but it focuses on one hospital in downtown Los Angeles in the year 2025. A hospital that caters to thugs, crime bosses, and hit men, which operates on a series of rules designed to build the one thing criminals exploit and disdain—trust. You must be a member to be admitted, which is a nice little wrinkle. I found myself chuckling at the thought of seeing these characters set up a Co-Op board. I am an easily amused man.
Nurse (Jodie Foster) is the head of the Artemis and runs it with a stern and plain-spoken fist. Foster has a way of inhabiting a role so completely we forget sometimes just how much she is acting. Hair dye and makeup help her transform into a dowdy nervous woman but those are just the accouterments.
I liked how her Nurse has a shuffling walk of sorts. Her staccato way of talking because of her tendency to be out of breath is all part of a performance almost too good for the type of movie Hotel Artemis is. A woman riddled with anxiety and a mild sort of agoraphobia. The rules help to keep her sane. “It’s the only way it works.” She says this over and over throughout the movie to several different people. But we begin to get the feeling that when she says this she is really talking to herself.
Nurse’s only aide is an orderly/enforcer named Everest (Dave Bautista) who seems resigned to his lot in life. His shoulders hunch as he shuffles from chore to chore. Bautista plays Everest less like some unstoppable badass and more like a put-upon plumber whose getting tired of having to unclog the toilet in room number 302.
A robber, who is not a member, tries to get inside the Hotel, Nurse asks Everest to take the man out to the Southside. Everest grumbles because it’s on the other side of the building. After dropping the man outside, the robber attempts to attack Everest. Everest easily pins him. “Do you see this badge? It means I’m a healthcare professional. But it goes both ways. I know how to heal you but I also know how to hurt you.” As he turns to leave he stops and turns around and glares. “I’m going to leave but please don’t jump on my back again.”
Nurse’s refusal to bend the rules for a bleeding man sets the crux of Hotel Artemis. The robber was part of a gang of bank robbers led by Sherman (Sterling K. Brown). Sherman is given the name Waikiki while in the hotel. His brother’s name is never known outside the code name Nurse gives him, Honolulu (Brian Tyree Henry).
Brown’s Sherman grounds the movie. His own code of ethics is at odds with everyone else’s if only because it includes his brother. The one man not afraid of emotional attachment is also the one man who could be doomed by it. Brown holds his own against Foster and rises to the occasion. His performance is less affected but no less complete as he tugs at his waistcoat trying desperately to figure out the spiraling events.
The Artemis seems to be getting full as it already had two guests. A glamorous seductive assassin named Nice (Sofia Boutella) and a smarmy arms dealer known only as Acapulco (Charlie Day). If the fattening of the guest registry wasn’t enough, the Artemis seems smack dab in the middle of riots. In the year 2025 water has been privatized, or should I say more privatized, and it seems Angelinos are revolting.
Pearce uses the riots and the botched bank robbery to lead Sherman and Honolulu to the Artemis as a way to lay the groundwork for the mood. The script, also by Pearce, captures the feeling of a gathering storm. Whenever a new character is introduced they bring along their own personal baggage. The Artemis with is simple but carved in stone rules begins to creak under the pressure because these characters bring with them not just conflict but their own set of rules.
Nurse feels as if she is dealing with multiple spinning plates at once. Sherman’s brother is suffering not just from bullet wounds but from by a liver damaged by years of drug abuse. Sherman is also suffering from gunshot wounds. Nice, it turns out, is at the Artemis on a job. Sherman and Nice appear to have had, at some point, a relationship. Acapulco is the type of obnoxious jerk who can’t help but say the wrong things at all the wrong times. He’s the type who enjoys poking a hornet’s nest but becomes indignant when the hornets begin to swarm.
The Artemis itself is a broody mix of art deco, futurism, and grime. These disparate styles when thrown together add a layer of organic realism to the surreal goings-on. Scenes such as Nurse sitting on a moth-eaten chair in front of a gorgeous art deco painted wall of a tropical beach as a holographic curtain hangs in the foreground displaying the news. The stylized mixture works as it enhances the sort of beautiful melancholy permeating every frame of Hotel Artemis.
Rules are made to be broken, or so it goes, when Nurse and Everest see Morgan (Jenny Slate) a wounded cop outside of the Artemis. Morgan seems to know Nurse’s name, something even Everest doesn’t know. Morgan knows Nurse and knew her son. It’s implied Nurse’s son died from a drug overdose. Something within Nurse cracks and she breaks the rules and lets her in.
Throughout Hotel Artemis characters routinely downplay the growing chaos as events unfold. “Just another Wednesday,” is a popular refrain as they desperately try and regain control. Events and consequences begin to pile up. A crackle of anticipation runs underneath every scene of the movie alerting us to the impending moment when it will all start to crumble. Enter The Wolf King (Jeff Goldblum), a name even Nurse finds silly.
A crime boss and owner of the Artemis, he nonetheless demands imperiously special treatment. People in power behaving as if rules have no effect on them is hardly new. One has only to look at the news. But Nurse is worried about what the Wolf King would say if he found out she had treated a cop. More importantly, we begin to understand who Nice is waiting for. Add to the swirling events Sherman’s anxiety as he realizes they may have inadvertently stolen from the Wolf King.
Jeff Goldblum’s Wolf inhabits the void left behind by the immaculate Vincent Price. With his silken smooth voice and easy demeanor, he sashays about in his cream-colored blood-stained suit. “Oh honey, without the rule breakers, you’d be out of the job.” Goldblum always appears to be kidding in every role he plays. Once the Wolf King appears, Hotel Artemis begins to pick up the pace as it rumbles toward its inevitable conclusion.
Pearce’s script, while incredibly well structured, lacks any real substance. Lines such as “It’s always easier to get in than to get out,” are repeated often but are delivered as if there is some great importance attributed to them. But the repetition deadens the line’s impact. However, the cast comes together so well Hotel Artemis exudes flashes of poignancy as its climax comes to a roiling conclusion.
Bautista is proving himself to be a more than capable actor. Between this and his small role in Blade Runner: 2049 he’s showing an immense range. More so than Dwayne Johnson, Bautista, understands how to use his body to convey a character. Much like Foster and her Nurse’s walk Bautista gives us hints at Everest’s personality and thoughts by the way he stands and moves within a scene.
Sofia Boutella continues her campaign to show the rest of you numbskulls why she should star in every movie ever if you would but only pay damn attention. Her relationship with Brown’s Sherman betrays more depth than the sometimes overly written dialogue. Boutella has a self-possession and a wryness to her that is refreshing in modern femme fatales. Her Nice struts down the hallways of the Artemis counting along with a timer on a bomb, in French. It’s one of the more badass moments of the summer. The moment she saunters down the hall slowly preparing to slice her target’s throat is riveting cinema.
Chung Chung-hoon’s camera seems perched at right angles. We feel as if we are constantly peeking into a scene, craning our necks to eavesdrop just a little more. At times the frame is bathed in a dim blood-red light, heightening the atmosphere.
Chung-hoon isn’t afraid to hold a shot, but he also understands when to look away. Chung-hoon and the editors, Paul Zucker and Gardner Gould, understand the value of a cut. When Hotel Artemis has a moment of violence, they will cut away at the moment of impact. Sometimes even cutting the film so as it appears we’ve seen the stab or impact but cut out the crucial frames. The violence becomes more visceral and less exploitative as a result.
Hotel Artemis does a magnificent job visually illustrating and making us feel the oncoming storm. We watch as one by one people begin to break the rules for people close to them. We understand why they do what they do as the world comes undone around them.
As a movie, Hotel Artemis doesn’t really have much beneath the surface, but it’s bolstered by its cast and quirky visuals. The further I get away from it the less I remember it, except for the last scene. The last shot is a beautiful visual coda for Nurse. Any movie that can go out on a shot like that is worth the price of admission.