Bad Times at the El Royale
Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo, Dakota Johnson, Jon Hamm, Chris Hemsworth, Cailee Spaeny, Lewis Pullman, Nick Offerman, Xavier Dolan
R for strong violence, language, some drug content and brief nudity
Buy on DVD/Blu-ray
In the 1940s, film noir was at its peak, establishing a crime thriller genre that has withstood time, but which has been inconsistently rendered in the intervening years under the genre description of neo noir. Bad Times at the El Royale looks to be trying to spark new life into the genre, but with seemingly little success.
The film opens with a static shot of a hotel room in what we presume is the titular hotel. In it, we see a mysterious man rolling up the carpet and pushing the furniture up against the wall only to hide a bag of ill-gotten goods beneath the floorboards. Establishing the stakes for the film, this scene oozes dramatic tension and promises the audience more than it can deliver.
Directed by Drew Goddard, who similarly upended convention with his horror dissection The Cabin in the Woods, tries to do the same for neo noir. His opening sequence is a daring and evocative tonal play, creating intrigue with seemingly little effort and laying out the premises of the film with inventiveness. While it takes half of the film to finally explain everything going on in the scene, the journey is more tedious than one would hope with such an impressive opening.
Featuring Jeff Bridges as a preacher, Cynthia Erivo as a doo-wop singer, Dakota Johnson as a hard-as-nails traveler, Jon Hamm as a vacuum salesman, Lewis Pullman as the hotel manager, and Chris Hemsworth as a charismatic cult leader, the film ties each character together with great care, but the connections are tangential in places and forced in others. As each character reveals new details about themselves that call into question all that they’ve told each other, the film tries to pull it all together in a dull chore of a third act.
In the 1990s, Quentin Tarantino helped refine traditional narrative filmmaking, which Goddard has co-opted here for his own attempt to revitalize a genre. While Cabin in the Woods proved popular, it was also problematic, but in a far less interesting way. Here, we have a story that falls apart as individual characters disappear from it and then drowns in its own attempts at being brutal. I could see Tarantino taking this narrative and the framework that Goddard creates in his opening scene and turning it into something far more thrilling and visually distinctive rather than devolving as all the interesting tricks make their mark and then fade into the background.
Goddard’s cast enlivens the film, though it also helps expose the shoddy nature of some of his narrative threads. Without rich characters from which to draw inspiration, they build instead on antiquated and unoriginal tropes. Erivo is the standout, crafting something utterly enchanting from a commonplace design. Hemsworth’s American accent is at first distracting, but quickly forgotten as he takes on a role that’s more sinister than any he’s had before and it suits him, as does almost everything he’s put out in the years since he became Thor.
Bad Times at the El Royale employs a number of modestly creative elements to tell the story, but the end result still feels like a ramshackle attempt to revise a genre that was already fairly succinct. Tossing in twisting elements that overpower much of the narrative. This is a movie that might have been better written by a more compelling voice. Goddard’s directorial style is interesting, but without the core of an exceptional script, it feels like it’s trying to polish over the cheap craftsmanship of a leak-riddled vessel.
December 13, 2018