There is a kinship, almost dominion, between that of a deft writer and his/her reader. This sort of immeasurable control that words can hold upon us, how a tale can capture us, forcing us to transfix upon it. We become a servant to someone’s words in a way. And for some of us who consider themselves harder to fool than others, writers like Drew Goddard become some of our favorites for being able to deceive and startle us with his unwavering ingenuity. It’s an odd relationship when you begin to contemplate it, but Goddard alongside others is a writer who can hypnotize you with mere words. It’s a bit sad to say that it doesn’t reign as impactful as before in his newest feature “Bad Times at the El Royale.”
As both director and writer, Goddard crafts an ensemble with big twists and turns that inevitably reign hollow like that of an abandoned underground tunnel, similar to that of the one encompassing the El Royale hotel. Before that though, the film opens with a tantalizing set piece in which a camera is positioned in the back of a room, behind the double-sided mirror perhaps? We watch a trench-coated, well-dressed gentlemen enter the room hastily. He’s seemingly running away from something, but what? He roams around the room, exhaling and gathering his wits as he then turns to the radio and tunes into a station. The audio swallows the screen, and the man proceeds to rip apart the room as he begins to bury one of his suitcases underneath the floorboards. He then pulls himself back together along with the ramshackled suite; cleaning, and combing. He waits, as another man arrives with a peculiar knock that seems rehearsed. The man allows his visitor in, turns around, and BANG! Shot in the back, as the screen cuts to black and a title card appears and reads “Ten Years Later.”
It’s a sunny day now, and what we know is that the duffel bag is still under the floor and that those floorboards belong to the El Royale hotel. A novel feature of the place is discussed by the first two characters who appear, Jeff Bridges as Father Daniel Flynn and Cynthia Erivo as Darlene Sweet. They exchange delightful and charming small talk, poking fun at the idea of the neighboring states borderline. The lodging is built upon that borderline, splitting between the great states of California and Nevada. It’s a hotel that’s seen better days, as seen by the desolate interior that finds itself in need of employees as the one bellhop is also the bartender, hospice, and manager.
It’s a big place though, so how can one man manage to hold it down? Well, the back rooms have to provide some help in making sure that everyone stays in line, as we are introduced to our six participants in this ensemble mystery. The so-called “salesman,” Laramie played by an enjoyably smarmy Jon Hamm; the priest depicted by the unrelentingly charming Jeff Bridges; the emotionally suppressed bellboy Miles, performed poignantly by Lewis Pullman; the high-motored and surely girl on the run, performed deviously by Dakota Johnson; and the virtuous singer Darlene performed by the palpable Cynthia Erivo.
More characters arise along the ride, but these are the foundational elements that act as moldable clay for Goddard to craft and shape into a suspenseful, nuanced story that is too clever for its own good. There is a lot of plot dispensed by “Bad Times at the El Royale,” enough to support it's 140-minute running time. The storylines threaded and allocated throughout the film don’t add up to much though, but there is subtle and surface-level brilliance applied by Goddard. A certain kind of exploration into morality, the sins of war, and a dose of religiosity; painting a duality between the sinner and the devoted faith believer. Everything else exists in a gray area, as few of the characters inhabit absolutes of morality. They refuse to play the game or choose to play it on their terms as Hemsworth’s cultish character preaches in the midst of the film’s latter half.
The threads add up to much of nothing, it’s sort of an auto-critique on social and faith-driven juxtapositions that gives off the impression that Goddard hopes will give the film’s inexplicable sadism and cruelty a pass without reason. He’s trying hard, too hard. Attempting to craft something of unpredictability by not making much sense, it's a sort of out-of-the-box thought process that backfires far more than it fabricates any sense of nuance. The finale involves a strutting villain standing off with a group of differing but paralleling individuals in a conclusive ending that is absent of resolution, which may be Goddard’s point.
Goddard is no newb or hack; he’s crafted immersive uniqueness out of a face-level, predictable story like “The Martian.” He’s the same guy behind “Cabin in the Woods,” a supposed teen slasher turned apocalyptic nightmare on which he provides social satire along with a thrill ride. “Bad Times at the El Royale” is a different animal though, in a bad way. Crafting a relentlessly alluring and compelling narrative that lacks that ever-so essential underline of purpose; every story needs to be about something, but Goddard doesn’t make that clear during this almost 2 and ½ hour picture, which comes to my surprise.
What also comes to surprise is the big leaps he’s taken as a director, manifesting some stupendous tracking shots that seamlessly capture the attention of any viewer. Glancing, floating, and wandering between characters and perspectives with a certain sense of fluidness that is surprising to see from a director in his second feature. His work in fabricating interluding performances that maintain a sense of tone and relatability between one another is an added dose of icing on the cake, along with that of the whip-cream on top in which each performance is stunningly captivating. Jeff Bridges, with little character depth, flexes his muscles and invokes sympathy and empathy for a character we barely know. He’s one of the best working today, and he reminds us of that in little to no time.
All of that is to argue that “The Bad Times at the El Royale” is not a misfire as much as it is a misstep. Goddard is crafting a film that overlaps in technique and execution with his previous works, channeling a range of influences from the Coen brothers’ simplistic intricacies and Tarantino’s stylistic pandemonium to create an aesthetically palatable period piece. But it's all a bit too complicated, relying on theme over plot and a more unconventional structure that makes it a distinct watch, but one that fails to satisfy and pinpoint the reasoning for sitting down and listening to the story Goddard has to tell.
Goddard remains one of the more clever and ambitious writers working today, but he gets too smart for his own good in “Bad Times at the El Royale.” Becoming both his greatest ally and his greatest enemy in the midst of constructing a double-sided mirror of a movie, he’s just on the wrong side in this case.