Movie Review - Bad Times at the El Royale

Writer-director Drew Goddard made The Cabin in the Woods (2012), a horror film that spoofed other horror films in many ways. That was the Oscar-nominee's feature debut in the director's chair. This is his follow-up. It's a bit of a spoof too, a spoof of Quentin Tarantino films or films of that sort. The exception is that it's not as funny or there aren't as many comedic bits, or at least the comedic bits aren't as obvious or effective. Goddard seems to bank more on the shocking deaths of famous actors to build his thrills and suspense than anything of actual substance. Yet, I found Ryan Murphy's recent American Horror Story: Roanoke more compelling. Maybe, it's because we spend more time in Murphy's TV show than we do here with Goddard's film, despite being over a 140 minutes. Goddard's film might have worked better as a Netflix or Amazon Prime series rather than a feature.

When making a film about a large group of people, there's always a fine line that has to be walked. Plenty of effective films about large ensembles have been made like The Magnificent Seven (1960) or Tarantino's The Hateful Eight (2015). These are films that are about four or more people where there isn't one singular protagonist or even two. Tarantino has made films in this vein. However, even films with large ensembles often have their narratives come down to one or two people, such as in Ocean's Eleven (2001) where George Clooney and Brad Pitt were the real focus. There are true ensemble films like Nashville (1975) or Crash (2005) or even Marvel's The Avengers (2012) where it's either a tapestry or it's truly about a group and the only thing singular is the situation or the location.

This movie perhaps wanted to be a true ensemble but like most films comes down to a couple of people, which is due to circumstances because people are indiscriminately killed. Like a slasher flick or some horror film, the ensemble is cut down only to reveal the movie's true focus is two persons and often when a character is dead, the movie ceases to care about that person. This isn't like This Is Us where a character's death is not the end but a kind of beginning to his or her story.

Unlike most horror films, Goddard wants us to care and know a little about the history of these people. He thus gives us flashbacks into their lives. These glimpses are helpful, but it's an odd balance of not totally being enough. At first, I thought Goddard was going to structure this film like HBO's Room 104 in which we see a series of independent, short films all taking place in the rooms of this motel, but the structure doesn't isolate the stories or characters for any particular purpose, stylistic or otherwise. Perhaps, it's simply organizational, as if to insult the intelligence of the audience.

All of that would have been fine, if Goddard's script were a bit more clever or gave us something more substantial or nuanced. For example, the setting of this film is the El Royale, a 1969 motel literally built on the border of California and Nevada near Reno. There's probably a dozen or so rooms. Half are on the California side and half are on the Nevada side. The lobby is also so divided. Now, despite this division, which is a gimmick of the motel, Goddard does nothing interesting with that gimmick.

The only reason to be on the border or in Nevada would be for the gambling or the prostitution. Yet, Goddard does nothing with that. His crime drama doesn't even involve either of those two things, which would be considered crimes anywhere else but the Silver State. The question becomes why have this motel even be in two states, if that doesn't figure into the plot or characters at all. It's color but unneeded and a bit wasteful. Perhaps, it's for a singular joke that is rather unfunny of the motel manager having to explain the two-state deal multiple times.

Jeff Bridges (True Grit and Crazy Heart) stars as Father Flynn, a priest with a dubious agenda but who claims to suffer from memory loss. Cynthia Erivo, the British actress who won the Tony Award and the Grammy for her role in The Color Purple on Broadway, also stars as Darlene Sweet, a down-on-her-luck, black singer playing in Reno. The film cares the most about them and following them consumes most of what happens here.

The other characters including those played by Jon Hamm, Dakota Johnson, Cailee Spaeny, Chris Hemsworth and Lewis Pullman don't get the same care. They're all mostly caricatures or brief sketches with the exception of Pullman who plays Miles, the motel manager who seems supremely traumatized but who also desperately wants forgiveness from the priest. I feel like Goddard was doing something fairly worthwhile with him but it gets lost in all the cacophony.

Rated R for strong violence, language, some drug content and brief nudity.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 21 mins.


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