Where you are, and when you are, make you who you are, in Drew Goddard‘s deliriously over-designed, entertainingly inventive, surprisingly sprawling “Bad Times at the El Royale” which has its fixation with location and period right there in the title. The place is the El Royale — a bifurcated motel half in California, half in Nevada with a divider line running down the middle of the cavernous lobby. And the times are Bad, both for the El Royale whose glory days as hideaway hub for the Rat Pack are over, and for America, as the film is set on a temporal dividing line too— the fender-bender moment when the free-love sixties rear-ended the paranoid seventies at speed, and a whiplashed and concussed nation stumbled from the bloodied wreckage.
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But don’t fear, the film is not at all, in the parlance of the time, heavy. All of this rich stuff is whipped to lightness by Martin Whist‘s glorious production design, velvetized by Seamus McGarvey‘s rain-slicked, neon-glowy photography, sweetened by an ineffably hip soundtrack of a capella hits and rediscovered Motown oldies, and freeze-dried into Neapolitan layers of genre confectionary— film noir, gangster movie, war film, western, espionage thriller. It’s as tasty, throwback and low in fiber as a packet of astronaut ice cream.
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In the best tradition of the hotel movie, this creaky venue where nothing is quite what it seems plays host to a motley crew of strangers who are not what they seem. Or rather in Goddard’s movie-steeped, slickly referential imagination, the archetypes they represent are cover stories for the other archetypes they turn out to be— but the surprise of ‘Bad Times’ is that there’s genuine compassion as well as a kind of drunken narrative pleasure in how those personas are gradually revealed.
There’s kindly, forgetful Father Flynn (Jeff Bridges) who befriends struggling backing singer Darlene Sweet (a revelatory Cynthia Erivo, given many opportunities to showcase her stunning voice), where slimy salesman Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm) condescends to her instead. They’re joined by Emily (Dakota Johnson) a morose bad-attitude hippy chick with a hot-rod car, whose trunk, we’ll soon discover, holds another young woman, bound and gagged (Cailee Spaeny). They all get the spiel about the El Royale’s bi-state gimmick from the sole employee, concierge/bartender/housekeeper/secret junkie Miles (Lewis Pullman), and check in, before mostly going on—in an order delightfully not-reflective of their relative star status—to die intricate, violent deaths.
Room by room their backstories are related, We discover early that the El Royale is riven with listening bugs and two-way mirrors, and zigzag around through flashbacks and replays to make sense of the tableaux they reveal. And at one pivot point, all the stories converge again, with a messy shotgun killing that we see happen three times over from different perspectives in a way that people who have never seen “Rashomon” like to compare to “Rashomon.” Actually, it’s more like “Jackie Brown,” just one of the Tarantino touchpoints that this “El Royale With Cheese” inevitably calls to mind. And that’s even before Chris Hemsworth turns up as a Charles Manson-esque cult leader, in anticipation of QT’s upcoming take on that story, “Once Upon A Time in Hollywood.” (What it is about our current moment that’s making filmmakers from Mary Harron to David Fincher to Tarantino and Goddard turn to the story of a sociopathic narcissist who built a hate-filled cult of personality around himself despite not obviously having one, I cannot imagine.)
But if there’s one crucial way in which Goddard’s theme-park reimagining of 1969 America as a kind of Disneyland of depravity, differs from Tarantino’s “let’s kill Hitler!” or “Imma end slavery!” approach, it’s that ‘Bad Times’ has a gratifyingly wide-ranging and weirdly respectful curiosity about the history in which it’s mucking about. Although the real-life Manson had a different fate from that of Billy Lee, as played by a charming but miscast (though to compensate, extremely shirtless) Hemsworth, summoning all the menace of an Abercrombie & Fitch model, there is no sense of Goddard rewriting history to suit his own God-Complex ends.
It makes “Bad Times at the El Royale” a cut above the average period-set popcorn film that, however schematically, takes care to touch on so many aspects of that troubled time: Manson, Vietnam, Nixon, Kennedy’s legacy, Motown, surveillance paranoia, hippie culture, not to mention systemic racism and sexism (sublimated in one superb monologue given by Erivo’s Darlene, which is perhaps the film’s only direct bid for topicality, but a pretty powerful one). And so the twists, which are not that hugely original or unguessable on their own, still feel satisfying as they play out bigger themes: with the characters all representing some aspect of late-’60s American culture, the multiple showdowns then become face-offs between rival ideologies and competing degrees of corruption and exploitation. Or, as Billy Lee, puts it, having made two of his acolytes fight each other under the pseudonyms “right” and “wrong”: “Let’s have us an allegory!”
It does not have the giggly gall of “Cabin in the Woods,” Goddard’s directorial debut, and certainly, there’s nothing in the climax, which is rather too long coming, to compare to summoning an actual apocalypse into being purely to screw with our expectations about slasher movies. But then that is a trick most filmmakers could not carry off once and none should be allowed to attempt twice. And where can one go when one has erased the future except into the past? With “Bad Times at the El Royale” Goddard’s comparatively leisurely pace may disappoint the more impatient, splatter-hungry genre-hounds in his fanbase, but for the rest of us, he has made impressive, enjoyable and gorgeous-to-look-at work of his “difficult second album” by defying expectations in a different way: broadening his scope, deepening his craft and letting the Bad Times roll. [B+]