Written and directed by Drew Goddard
Starring Dakota Johnson, Jon Hamm, Jeff Bridges, Chris Hemsworth, the kitchen sink
Running time: 2 hours and 21 minutes
MPAA rating: R for strong violence, language, some drug content and brief nudity
by Sandy DeVito, WitchQueen of Darkness
At some point around the halfway mark of Bad Times at the El Royale I disconnected with it pretty abruptly. Is it because I had a super long day at work and then had to rush to eat dinner before the screener and I drank a yerba mate really fast and chased it with two glasses of wine (on the back of yerba mate cans it reads "do not mix with alcohol" hahahaha)? Or is it because the Chris Hemsworth character shows up about halfway through and his presence in the film just makes no fucking sense in the context of what's been going on so far? I mean, you can hamfistedly shove any kind of character into any kind of narrative, sure, and pretend that it works somehow from sheer personal desire to have said character in your story, but that doesn't mean it works. The first half of this movie I was really enjoying (despite having to pee almost immediately and being really tired, as I was saying, which in a way is the truest litmus test for how much you're enjoying something if you're willing to stay awake and hold your pee to keep watching it). But the second half feels unfinished, and I got sort of fatigued and bored of it.
This is another one of those films where the less you know about the story going in the more likely you are to enjoy it, as it centers around a bunch of people with secrets and the mystery of what's unfolding where and with whom and when. All you really need to know is a group of strangers are all staying at a fancy/kitschy hotel called the El Royale which is technically on the Nevada/California state line. A priest (Jeff Bridges), a singer (Cynthia Erivo), a bellhop (Lewis Pullman), a guy who claims to sell vacuums (Jon Hamm) and a hippy (Dakota Johnson) are thrust together in a shitstorm of colliding events and the product is this film, a sort of charming mess of collage modge-podge stylistic visuals and underwritten characters given extra oomph from a stellar cast. The second half, as I was saying, includes Chris Hemsworth's culty Billy Lee, and I just wasn't convinced I was even watching the same film anymore once he entered; it feels like Goddard is trying to make some kind of point about chaos versus driven intention, but it never really lands anywhere, continually hovering above any kind of meaningful endpoint. Does his film have to come to a conclusion about whatever he's trying to say philosophically? I guess not, but subjectively, I think this could have been done more neatly, and the film just feels like a bunch of ideas scrawled across a chalkboard, neat to look at and listen to, without anything really going on underneath the snazzy jukebox and refreshment machines (which were all, admittedly, so fucking cool).
Cynthia Erivo is the real standout (what a voice), though I don't actually have any qualms about the cast in general; everyone does pretty much as well as can be expected with disappointingly cardboard characters (this guy can shoot guns well! This person can sing! This person has a physical ailment! And so on and so forth). Joss Whedon's script for Cabin in the Woods, Goddard's last directorial effort, which I love, seems to have helped him immensely with characterization, an important quality in narrative that is obviously lacking here (that movie is also literally about upending tropes, whereas this seems to be doubling down on them). Goddard is a more than competent director; as a writer I think he might need a little bit more practice. Every time he tries to make a point in the context of the writing it just feels like it's not quite self-aware enough to be self-deprecating, not serious enough to really drive the point home. It's fine to have many different narrative threads all humming along in your tale, but tying them together at the end is imperative for cinematic storytelling. The plot-holes, as varied as they are here (SO MANY), would probably not have been so glaring if I hadn't felt so many things happen without any narrative drive (at one point a character just sort of swings on a chandelier for awhile and nobody acts like this is abnormal...okay???) of any kind to ground them. So many cool things to work with, but it ultimately feels like several short film vignettes rather than a single story. A cool film to look at and listen to; some really neat moments of unexpected ultraviolence, though there are others that feel unnecessarily cruel. For what it's worth, my audience seemed to be enjoying this more than me. It just lost me somewhere. Well, I know where it lost me. It lost me with Billy Lee. I feel like there's a tight little hour-and-a-half really great film lost in this 2hr-21-minute Pollock-painting of a pet project.
One last thing: is Goddard a religious person? There are weird moments of religious emphasis in this film that made me uncomfortable. I guess he was going for some kind of "we're all a gray area but some of us use that as justification for being a douche and other people feel remorse and that's what separates different kinds of people" but the white patriarchal god is just pure evil, y'all, so it all falls sort of flat. I'll watch whatever Goddard makes after this; I just feel like he's probably capable of something a lot more defined than this, and he's still figuring out what that's going to be.