Bad Times at the El Royale
Written and directed by Drew Goddard
Starring Chris Hemsworth, Dakota Johnson, Jon Hamm and Jeff Bridges
In Frank Oz’s very funny 1988 comedy Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Michael Caine’s acculturated mountebank recounts abandoning his pursuit of high culture thusly: “I had taste and style, but not talent.” It’s a line that comforts the critic, who so often suffers the charge of being a bitter hack who adjudicates the worth of others’ hard work, in lieu of actually producing anything of value. For all its despair, there’s wisdom in Caine’s admission. One must, after all, know their limitations.
Drew Goddard – screenwriter and consultant on various winking, po-mo screen properties (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Cloverfield, etc.) and director of the 2012 horror-genre-term-paper Cabin in the Woods – wears his tastes proudly on his sleeve. His scripts comment on the operations of genre while simultaneously subverting and satisfying these expectations. He is a kind of critic-as-filmmaker. And one who, as suggested by the new Bad Times at the El Royale (which he both writes and directs), is working well beyond the boundaries of his own limitations.
Set sometime during the first Nixon administration, the film packs an ensemble cast into the titular motel, which spans the California/Nevada border. Jon Hamm plays a fast-talking salesman who seems as if he was auditioning for a community theatre mounting of a Mamet play. Jeff Bridges, pulling a low-rent version of his own gurgling True Grit cowboy, is a crook passing as a priest. There’s relative newcomer Cynthia Erivo, offering the film’s worthiest performance, as a struggling session singer. And rounding out the rookery of wayward souls are Dakota Johnson and Cailee Spaeny as sisters on the lam from a charismatic hippie cult leader, played by Chris Hemsworth, whose hand-me-down Charles Manson rhetoric is delivered in a dopey cadence channelling Caddyshack-vintage Bill Murray. There’s also the El Royale’s bellhop/concierge/cleaning staff/in-house cinematographer, played by Lewis Pullman.
And on a dark and stormy and extraordinarily fateful night, their fates converge at the El Royale. Fittingly, the film practically opens with the initiating bang of a starter pistol. Let the play of mistaken identity, triple-crosses, mounting MacGuffins and explosive bursts of wanton violence commence!
El Royale is an superficially well-constructed film. But it is the sort of thing one might feel compelled to teach in a screenwriting class rather than truly savour. It makes even basic disclosures of plot feel like stakes-raising “twists.” Timely intimations of Vietnam, of civil rights, of the putrefying dream of the Summer of Love utopianism sway woozily in the background, never amounting to much. It abounds with references to dualisms – the red and black of a roulette wheel, abounding mentions of brothers, the bi-state location of the hotel itself – which elucidate no real theme, beyond the interminably dull acknowledgement of the old Manichean good/evil binary. Even the seemingly random acts of brutality feel vaguely moralizing, punishing the wicked and redeeming the chaste and penitent. Goddard has workshopped a bulbous, overlapping, Mobius strip screenplay that can’t help but call attention to its aspirations of intricacy.
The direction is similarly yearning; practically begging for admiration. A sequence in which Hemsworth swishes toward the camera, piece of pie in hand, grooving to the strains of Deep Purple’s Hush, is so desperate in its attempt to appear iconic that it becomes difficult to watch head-on.
Comparisons between El Royale and the cinema of Quentin Tarantino are perhaps inevitable, given the film’s violence, its kitschy throwback aesthetic, its ironic deployment of ‘60s pop standards, its chronology-shuffling Pulp Fiction-ish plotting and its sustained switcheroos of allegiance and chicanery (see: Reservoir Dogs, The Hateful Eight). But measuring Goddard against Tarantino needlessly befouls the latter, who, for all his arch film geek machoism, more or less consistently manages to make films that are playful in their postmodernism, and possessive of something like genuine soulfulness. (He also rarely stoops to the levels of inexcusable schmaltz Goddard indulges here.) Goddard knows the steps but not the rhythm, intuitively understanding the mechanics of genre movies while struggling with their animating feeling.
If Cabin in the Woods, for all its cleverness, felt like a horror movie that couldn’t bother itself with the business of being scary, then El Royale is an eager entertainment absent anything genuinely entertaining. As Greta Garbo’s depressed Russian dancer puts it in the granddaddy of all densely plotted one-night-in-a-hotel flicks, Edmund Goulding’s Grand Hotel, “Everything is cold.” Bad Times at the El Royale is a film that wears its self-conscious style and show-offy displays of good taste on its period-era Orlon acrylic cardigan sleeves. Yet talent – that is, genuine talent, artistry and not mere craft – has checked out.
Special to The Globe and Mail