Upon pressing play on this mysterious story about a vulnerable student who has gone missing at a dilapidated hotel stationed in the detritus of Skid Row in LA, you think you’re about to embark on a true crime documentary. What you are actually watching is a micro examination of some of the worst traits that plague society today.
Elisa Lam is a 21 year old, fragile girl who has lived a sheltered life compared to her peers in Vancouver, Canada. Existing vicariously through social media, she is longing to find a purpose and like most people of her age she yearns to explore the world. Heading off to the West Coast of the USA without any experience of planning such an odyssey, Elisa lands at the notorious Cecil Hotel, home away from home for some of the world’s most notorious criminals including infamous serial killers.
Ill equipped to deal with her short term surroundings, her life slowly begins to unravel leading to a chaotic 24 hour period that culminates in a disappearance which dumfounds the LAPD and amateur sleuths alike. While the producers- one of whom is the critically acclaimed Ron Howard- place Elisa at the centre of the narrative, what they are cleverly doing is examining human nature, mental health and societal apartheid. As each of the 4 episodes progress, the news of Elisa’s disappearance becomes secondary to the fallout of her evaporation.
As a viewer I became increasingly uncomfortable at the uncontrolled, haphazard, almost slapstick investigation which is meant to bring answers and closure for the family but ultimately ends up plaguing the lives of anyone associated with the hotel on the day of her vanishing.
There were genuine moments when all the hairs on my body stood up as the protagonists explored everything from the paranormal to domestic terrorism to government conspiracy- the footage of her final known movements achieves what most horror genre directors would pine for as their “Rembrandt moment” but perversely and perhaps distastefully the ending left me feeling slightly dissatisfied.
Viewed: February 2021