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Bad Times at the El Royale

“Let’s have ourselves an allegory!”

Although critics didn’t hate Bad Times at the El Royale, audiences tended to ignore it: the September 2018 release netted slightly less than the cost of production, and the only person I know who has seen it is the friend I saw it with. That’s a tragedy, since Drew Goddard’s film is absolutely excellent.

You know Drew Goddard even if you don’t realize you know Drew Goddard. He’s worked on Alias, Lost, The Good Place, and Daredevil. He wrote the screenplay for The Martian. He co-wrote and directed Cabin in the Woods. He wrote one of the best Buffy episodes ever. He’s awesome.

Bad Times has many of the same ingredients of Goddard’s previous work: a group of strangers wind up in an odd place and have meaningful interactions. In this case, the odd place is based on a real-life location, a hotel that straddles the California/Nevada border, in the late 1960s.

That group of strangers? Let me put it this way: my original opening line for this review was “Thor, Harriet Tubman, and Don Draper walk into a hotel…” But I couldn’t stop there, because not only does this film star Chris Hemsworth, Cynthia Erivo, and Jon Hamm, it also features Dakota Johnson, Jeff Bridges, and Lewis Pullman, with small parts for Nick Offerman and Shea Whigham.

As for those meaningful interactions: almost no one is what they seem in this film. Jeff Bridges isn’t a priest, Jon Hamm isn’t a vacuum salesman, Lewis Pullman isn’t just a meek bellboy. Even characters who aren’t hiding something—like Hemsworth’s cult leader or Johnson’s disaffected hippie—are struggling. Everyone is a victim of either bad choices or bad circumstances, and that makes them all desperate.

The standout, for me, is Cynthia Erivo’s Darlene Sweet, a lounge singer who can’t quite make the big time. She is forceful yet kind, and the script allows us to see how she deals with the overt and covert racism of the era without making that the only element of her character arc. She is a good person having a (ahem) bad time, which also makes her a wonderful foil to Jeff Bridges’ ersatz priest, who is a not-great guy who might just have it in him to be good.

I like texts with cosmic pretentions: good, evil, the meaning of life, the tragedy of life. Bad Times hits the sweet spot of medievalish allegory and a certain postmodern ironic distance. There’s symbolism and self-awareness, but also awareness of the vagaries of symbolism. Just look at the quote at the top of this review!

Or consider the significance of the hotel itself, straddling the state line. Obviously, that’s a metaphor for good and evil (and one character dies right on the borderline, in case that metaphor wasn’t clear). But it’s also a metaphor for the ambiguity of good and evil: why do the rooms on the California side of the hotel cost more? “Because they’re in California.” It’s arbitrary, until it’s not.

Many critics dismissed the film as nothing but a Tarantino knock-off with outdated vibes, but I think that’s too much focus on style and not enough on substance. Tarantino’s works are all about cool—they vibe, but they don’t mean. That absence of meaning is like nihilism, not in the sense that Tarantino is advocating for the meaninglessness of existence, but because he doesn’t seem to understand that existence does have meaning, or that films ought to have not just a look but also a perspective.

Don’t get me wrong: this film does vibe like Tarantino! You feel cooler just watching it. Goddard is willing to take his time with the camera, lingering and teasing out the visuals in a way so few big-budget films do these days.

The soundtrack, too, is phenomenal, with a strong focus on diegetic music from the 1960s. One of the best scenes, and the one that endeared me to Cynthia Erivo forever, is a single shot of her singing acapella as Jon Hamm watches through a one-way mirror:


That scene also epitomizes one of the film’s themes: seeing and knowledge. Darlene doesn’t know she is being watched, and Jon Hamm’s character doesn’t know why he’s able to watch her. Previously, he’d lied about who he was, and he’d misunderstood who she was. Throughout, there are TV news clips and a film reel featuring an unnamed politician (“you’d know him” and “he’s dead, ain’t he?” are the clues we get) that we never get to see. Watching, looking, turning away, and spying: the camera is always a voyeur; in this film, many of the characters are, too.

Some characters know more than others. We sometimes know less than the characters do, and sometimes more—even more than the characters might know about themselves. That’s a hint, perhaps, that this film isn’t about what we’ve done, where we come from, or what we want, but the sacrifices, gifts, and choices we’re willing to make either for ourselves or for others that determine our fate.

Without getting too spoilery, I will say that the lofty ideas (or pretentions, if you insist) and leisurely pace of the first two-thirds of the film do get a bit over-the-top in the bloody, brutal, deadly conflagration at the end. But the last scene, of two people who made the right choices for each other rather than for themselves, makes even the most cosmic pretentions as personal as they always ought to be.

Josie Kafka is a full-time cat servant and part-time rogue demon hunter. (What's a rogue demon?)

9 comments:

  1. Okay, sounds very intriguing. I'll definitely give it a try.

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  2. Cool review for a cool movie. Look forward to revisiting this one someday.

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  3. Had never heard of this, and watched it last night on Amazon. Brilliant stuff. Highly recommended.

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  4. Woo-hoo! Nomad, I'm so happy to hear that.

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  5. Love this movie. Drew Goddard has been a fave of mine since Buffy. It's criminal that so few people saw it.

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  6. I saw this in the theater, and it was definitely interesting. I spent an hour talking about it with a friend, and I think we liked it, but it was conflicted because the experience was bizarre. I agree with pretty much everything you said, and you reminded me why it was so... interesting.

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  7. I sought this movie out specifically because of Drew Goddard. And oh man... So, so, great. Thanks for this really insightful piece! Now I need to watch it again... (And I could listen to Cynthia Erivo singing forever).

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  8. These comments are making me so happy! I'm delighted that at least a few people have seen this film. And one more, thanks to my review!

    It wasn't until I read all these comments and re-read my review that I realized:

    1) At no point did I even attempt to explain the plot in my review

    2) No one has commented about the plot at all, or about any particular thing that happens in the movie

    Maybe that's why I like the movie so much. I mean, what even is the plot? "People talk, we get some backstory, and then stuff happens"?

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    Replies
    1. LOL! Yes, I think that is the only way to describe this movie. Stuff happens.

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