The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel review: Netflix's new docu-series overlooks the bigger mystery
The four-part mystery documentary arrives on Netflix this week.
Oscar-nominated director Joe Berlinger has been behind some absolutely brilliant true-crime documentaries, including the still-talked-about Paradise Lost trilogy.
However, he has also tried his hand at dramatic movie making, with 2019's exceedingly mediocre Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, with Zac Efron as Ted Bundy (in the same year that Berlinger also released Conversations with a Killer, a documentary based on the Ted Bundy tapes), and it revealed that there are two very different story telling talents required between dramas and documentaries, both of which he may not actually possess.
With his latest docu-series, with huge Oscar-winning producers like Ron Howard and Brian Grazer behind him, Berlinger seems to be back on safer ground, but every now and again, The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel feels like it is being directed by Dramatic Berlinger, to the detriment of Documentary Berlinger.
The central premise of the series initially seems perfect, with the mysterious disappearance of college student Elisa Lam, last seen entering but never seen to leave the Cecil Hotel, where she was staying at during a trip to Los Angeles. We're then introduced to the hotel's manager, some of the guests who stayed in the hotel at the same time as Elisa Lam, some Los Angeles locals who now the history of the Cecil Hotel all to well... and it becomes immediately apparent that Berlinger should've focused solely on the history of the hotel itself, instead of through the lens of the disappearance of Elisa Lam.
The glimpses we're given into the backstory of the Cecil Hotel are staggering (it has its own lengthy Wikipedia page titled "List of deaths and violence at the Cecil Hotel"), but are served up as nothing more than set dressing for the disappearance case that Berlinger has bafflingly decided to focus on. While there are some brilliant moments scattered throughout the unravelling of Lam's disappearance - the creepy elevator footage, the deep dive on Lam's social media posts - they are too often sandwiched between too many people saying the same tidbits of information over and over again.
It is really only when we get to the fourth and final episode when a greater narrative push suddenly arrives, when a group of keyboard detectives and wannabe podcast hosts get overly involved in Lam's case, and the power of assumption and misinformation starts to poison the entire investigation. By then, so close to the end, this potentially powerful thesis has arrived too late, and Berlinger hasn't left himself with enough time to flesh it out fully.
Instead, we're given multiple talking head interviews with detectives who keep reiterating how weird the case was, or the (accidentally very entertaining) hotel manager, who unblinkingly argues that the Cecil Hotel was such a centralised spot for weird goings-on, that one missing woman was barely a blip on their radar. Berlinger weaves them altogether to push this one central mystery narrative, an active decision to not focus on the hotel as a larger entity, pushing the public reaction to the case to very late in the day, and it is with these dramatic storytelling decisions, that he gets in the way of a potentially great documentary.
All episodes of Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel will be available on Netflix from Wednesday, 10 February.
Clip via Netflix