Pauly (Adam Leese) is a systems support specialist who spends his days traveling around the country fixing problems for luddite clients who can barely turn their networks on or off without breaking something simple. He doesn’t love his work or his clients. He especially hates the reality of constant travel:— days on the road and in monochromatic offices filled with strangers bookended by nights in generic hotels, watching bad TV to drown out primal noises in adjacent rooms. Doing his job, he explains, means “You don’t live in Brooklyn or Los Angeles or any of the cities in between. You live in a country of hotels.” Frankly, Paul’s life just sucks. And it’s about to get a whole lot worse.
Country of Hotels — directed by Julio Maria Martino with a script by David Hauptschein — is at its best when it dives into the mundane horror of trying to make a home for a night in a room filled with the ghosts of strangers’ tragedies. In this case, the ghosts are figurative and literal, although it’s stronger when Country leans on symbols and atmosphere rather than explicit supernatural happenings. Unfortunately, the story, told as essentially three tales connected by a haunted hotel room, falls apart majorly in the final act after two reasonably compelling initial tales. It crumbles so completely, in fact, that it kind of sours what came before.
The aforementioned Pauly represents both the introduction to the film and the second story, and his descent into madness is the high point of the entire endeavor. Before that, we witness a woman, Brenda (Siobhan Hewlett) involved in an affair and trying to keep her shit together when it becomes clear her lover, Roger (Matthew Leitch), isn’t on the same page. The small visual continuities between their stories are well done. I still can’t quite make heads or tails of the third story. What grounds both Pauly and Brenda is the inherent humanity in their situations, ghosts or not.
There’s a heavy David Lynch vibe to the film, from set design (odd patterns, emphasis on mid-century technology and furniture) to technique (slow camera movements, ambient noise, counterintuitive cutting). For those first two stories, it works quite well. Brenda’s story feels directly inspired by Lost Highway with its use of voyeuristic perspectives and naturalistic female nudity. The critique on American professional isolation in Pauly’s story is right at home with the “dark underbelly” focus of Lynch’s oeuvre, too.
That final chapter, though. I can’t make sense of why it concludes the overall film the way it does. It’s another descent into madness, but it makes explicit the more surrealistic elements of the setting and even goes some way into explaining how the haunted hotel works. It’s a frustrating denouement for an otherwise well-developed set of tales about our broken society. I’m talking around the actual story both to avoid spoilers and also because it completely lost me.
I mean, look: There are plenty of stories about haunted everyday settings as a means of poking holes in what Americans take for granted within an indifferent system that chews us up and spits it out. Country of Hotels isn’t a hidden gem by any means, but two-thirds of it embody an interesting and generally well-crafted attempt. It’s just a shame it doesn’t find its way home.