We are happy to give up our savings for this rigged game of chance (Fantastic Fest)
The walls of the hotel are still painfully thin. Whispers on the other side are often caught by accident, but once introduced into your brain, they are trapped forever. What brought your neighbor to his destination? Business? Vacation? Are they looking to escape, or something more permanent? Each recording is an invitation to mystery; behind each door is an ongoing Agatha Christie novel. The trick is to stay an observer and not fall victim to someone else’s story.
The walls of the El Royale are thinner than most. Each room hides a one-way mirror for an invisible observer to record your dirty interludes, a window designed for profit and perversion. What was once a booming destination that trapped politicians, celebrities and star motherfuckers, has collapsed into insignificant disrepair. Eight dollars a night may hide a vacuum cleaner or a runaway chorister, but the days of financially important blackmail are long gone.
JFK blew his brains out. Our boys are burning in jungles across seas we have never seen. Nixon lies to us every night from the living room TV. Drawn Goddard builds his latest thriller on the bones of a screaming America. No time stamps needed, the 60s are drawing to a close. Charles Manson is on our doorstep… or even scarier, Billy Lee.
Here is a thriller designed to excite and titillate, but the Bad times at the El Royale are not as horrific as the massacres that occur daily beyond its dilapidated real estate. Everyone seeks refuge from a traumatic backstory, and the four guests who collide that night are certainly justified in their retreat. They want little to see with each other and are even less interested in the great history of their current destination.
Lewis pullman is the drugged office clerk who spends most of his days worrying about nothing and locked in the maintenance closet. The hotel is literally on the edge of California and Nevada. Once upon a time, it was cute and flirty, but his spiel became tired and mundane. The surprise appearance of four desperate customers wreaks havoc on him and ignites the necessary dramatic chaos. These people don’t care about kitsch. They have hell chasing them.
Goddard wickedly divides the movie using part numbers on title cards. Jon hamm is Room One, the vacuum cleaner seller. He was there first, he has a lot of amenities and he demands the lavish space of the bridal suite. Room five belongs to Cynthia Erivo Aspiring young girl from Motown. She’s been stuck in the shadows for too long, and Reno’s bright lights give her stability, even fame. Jeff Bridges is a priest who lets a coin hit him in room four. Dakota johnson is the hippie girl of steel in room seven, and she puts more than luggage in the trunk of her car.
Behind rented doors, the puzzles are locked away from their troubles. We are given time inside with each one, and it is quickly revealed that they are more than their archetype. With sins exposed to pesky one-way mirrors, guests are forced into partnership and opposition, and more of an outside force hangs over their future.
Who is Billy Ray? he is Chris Hemsworth, and that’s really all you need to know to understand the mighty power of its power. He is introduced haloed in the sunlight, and even if Goddard does not signify the moment with a chorus of angels, we can feel their music rippling in our flesh. He truly is Odinson, and any mortal would fall for his magnetic attraction. This celestial being turned that lure into a weapon, and it makes him as deadly as any bullet.
Bad times at the El Royale vibrates with the energy of a roulette wheel. As soon as the first coin is informed of transactions inside another coin, the spin is hit and the ball hits the back track. Goddard revels in the audience’s guessing game as to who will survive the bet, effectively mimicking the surprise assassinations of Hitchcock’s best scripts. All actors are made equal under the criminal crosshairs.
Goddard is mostly successful in disguising his hand in genre tropes, but to get unique combinations of performers a few paths have to be forced through a supernatural sleuth or coincidence. As if one-way mirrors weren’t enough, the characters are gifted with an insane sense to alert them of impending danger and lightning-fast reflexes to gain the upper hand. It’s a movie, so all that makes Bridges and Erivo sit across from each other, fight their minds, and chew up dialogue is hell. Why question it when you’re having so much fun?
References and material receiving subversion in Bad times at the El Royale may not be as obvious to a modern audience as the gutting of the creature in the previous Goddard movie, The cabin in the woods, but it certainly leans heavily on the graves of past efforts. Hitchcock and Christie are there in the set-up. The fetishized design of the Sixties production stinks of Tarantino, and maybe a little Wes Anderson. The actors enter and exit Bogart, Cagney and Dunaway. It’s the B-movie pulp heightened by the A-movie flair. So for those who want to star, the movie acts like a Silver Screen edition of Trivial Pursuit.
Bad times at the El Royale Rarely abandons its Mowtown rhythm and keeps up its revelations about hotel rooms to the climax. Trying to figure out who will be there at the time of departure is futile. During the film, I placed my bet on each brand, and still managed to shoot. Goddard is precious with nothing but the frame. The movie is her dollhouse, and the impression is that the toys that survived that runtime probably wouldn’t make it through to the next one. Realize the director is the kid in charge, watch, don’t touch, and you’ll enjoy this recreation of your apocalypse on the outside.