Thursday, October 18, 2018

Movie Review: Bad Times at the El Royale

Bad Times at the El Royale *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Drew Goddard.
Written by: Drew Goddard.
Starring: Jeff Bridges (Father Daniel Flynn/Dock O’Kelly), Cynthia Erivo (Darlene Sweet), Dakota Johnson (Emily Summerspring), Jon Hamm (Laramie Seymour Sullivan/Dwight Broadbeck), Chris Hemsworth (Billy Lee), Cailee Spaeny (Rose Summerspring), Lewis Pullman (Miles Miller), Nick Offerman (Felix O’Kelly), Xavier Dolan (Buddy Sunday), Shea Whigham (Dr. Woodbury Laurence), Manny Jacinto (Wade), Katharine Isabelle (Auntie Ruth).
Drew Goddard’s first film as a director was the wonder The Cabin in the Woods (2012), which pulled back the veil on horror movies, and reveled in exposing all the tropes of the genre in a clever way. In doing so, Goddard wanted to make the audience wrestle with the genre itself – why it works, how it works, and how we watch it. He is trying for something similar in Bad Times at the El Royale with the Tarantino-esque crime movie – and the result is decidedly more mixed. The film is WAY too long for one thing (at two hours and twenty minutes, it feels a good 45 minutes too long, especially in the middle part of the film that sags mightily). I’m also not quite sure Goddard fully nails what makes us watch these films – nor is he fully able to implicate the genres lack of morality and cheap bloodlust in a way that makes sense in the same way The Cabin in the Woods did. Yet, I will say, that Bad Times at the El Royale is still a mightily entertaining movie – and I feel myself liking it more the more I think about it. Perhaps a second viewing would snap everything into focus for me.
The film takes place at the title hotel, which has a giant red line down the middle of it, separating the part of the hotel that lays in California for the part that lays in Nevada (for all the talk this line generates, I still have no idea why Goddard did this – but oh well). It’s sometimes in the late 1960s/early 1970s, and the once thriving hotel is on its last legs. It has one employee – Miles (Lewis Pullman), a nervous young man who disappears for long stretches of time. A few guests start showing up, and milling about the lobby waiting to be checked in. There is Father Flynn (Jeff Bridges), a kindly old priest, Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm), a travelling salesman, Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo) a singer down on her luck, and the mysterious Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson) who shows up in a fast car, and wants to talk to no one. If you wanted to break the film up into three acts, you could say the first act has all the characters lying to each other, the second act has those lies come unraveled for the audience, and the third act throws a grenade at the proceedings in the form of Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth), a Charles Manson-type leader who talks. A lot.
For me, I enjoyed the setup of the movie. As a writer, Goddard is deliberately overwriting the dialogue here to sound like movie dialogue, but also for it to all sound like an act (because it is). This sort of meta-writing can go wrong – really wrong – but it’s here where he is aided by his terrific cast who deliver the dialogue precisely as it should be delivered (no one is better at it here than Hamm – having a blast as the overcompensating salesman). The setup probably runs too long – but it’s at least an enjoyable too long. The second act is the weakest – it has everyone split up into their various rooms, or as groups of two, and either through long flashbacks or dialogue heavy exposition reveals their real stories. By the time Hemsworth swaggers into the hotel – shirtless, coming out of the rain, he is sorely needed, as the film has ground to a halt.
I don’t want to spoil any more about the film. What I will say is that this kind of genre deconstruction is not an easy thing to pull off – especially when you are disguising your film as one of that genre, and want to wrap it up in an entertaining package. Even in The Cabin in the Woods – as brilliant as that film is – has its issues (the biggest being that the film never manages to be scary, as its so wrapped up in being clever, it just never gets there). Here, you just want to goose the story along a little bit – I know Tarantino’s last film The Hateful Eight, was both three hours long and in a single location, but that combination is a hard one to pull off, and Goddard doesn’t quite do it here (he would have been better using the 90-minute Reservoir Dogs as his guide).
Still, I admired a lot about Bad Times at the El Royale – if for no other reason than I have no idea when the last time I saw a film like this go in wide release, and I appreciate the effort. But more than that, I think this is the type of film that will grow over time – it didn’t do particularly well in theaters this past weekend, but I think cult status is likely here. And I want to revisit it myself – I think there’s more going on in this flawed movie than I took in the first viewing.

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