Bad Times at the El Royale (2018)

Directed by Drew Goddard

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Having seen Drew Goddard’s The Cabin in the Woods, it’s easy to suspect that there’s something otherworldly going on at the El Royale, a stylish but mysteriously sparse hotel that straddles the state line between California and Nevada.  Set in the late 60s or early 70s this place is supposed to have been a bungalow for a certain type of wealthy person with potential mob connections, and imminent revelations show that the staff could and did spy on many of the clientele behind a two-way mirror.

When the film begins a small handful of people show up as if out of thin air, each hiding something.  They are a priest (Jeff Bridges), a singer (Cynthia Erivo), a sort of Bonnie Parker (Dakota Johnson), a Suit (Jon Hamm) and the hotel clerk (Miles Miller).  That they should all arrive at once and seem to be so different, well you imagine they’ve been drawn or lured to this location for some kind of karmic retribution.

The film will break their story up into chapters that often overlap, showing different perspectives of the same moment and slowly clueing us into their various schemes and backstories.  But what starts out with such stylish conviction, a kind of Twilight Zone mystery, slowly erodes into what felt like a knockoff of Reservoir Dogs.

The mystery isn’t all that mysterious, and the eventual dilemma is by no means orchestrated (as it was in Cabin in the Woods), instead it’s just kind of happenstance.

And all that’s fine, but the film frames everything in such a way that it feels like we are staring at lab rats in a maze, watching how they interact, run into walls and eventually lose their minds trying to solve the puzzle.  There is a sense that we know more than them, even if we are playing the game alongside them, trying to figure out who’s in control, what they want and what it all means.

And the film wants you to ask these questions.  Every moment, every chapter is set up in a way that it ends with some kind of revelation.  The priest isn’t really a priest, and the Bonnie Parker has a woman tied up in her room.  The jolly ‘ol hotel clerk does heroin in a back closet, and the Suit works for the CIA.  Then we learn that the hotel isn’t a normal hotel but run by some shady organization that intends to blackmail its guests.  What it all adds up to we’re not sure, but we know it means something.

And then… nothing much happens.  Another character, someone like Charles Manson (Chris Hemsworth) shows up and adds some chaos to the fray, but the mystery is gone and instead there’s just some manufactured drama between a few wild cards in the bunch.  It then gives way to a proposed father-son relationship between the priest and the hotel clerk, again like that ultimate bond between Harvey Keitel and Tim Roth in Reservoir Dogs.

Everything is more or less well-executed and occasionally thrilling, but the film works best when it withholds answers rather than gives them.  It’s the dramatic set dressing, the questions raised by the environment and character deceptions that work best.  When all the cards are on the table it becomes rather drab.

Taking a step back I suppose the film does work as a microcosm of something.  The El Royale, for whatever reason, attracts all these different people and must represent a broad spectrum of people at this time.  It’s around 1969, and there’s a young black woman, a Vietnam veteran (the hotel clerk), a CIA agent, a Charles Manson-type, a Bonnie Parker (Bonnie & Clyde came out in 1967), and I’m not entirely sure what the priest represents.  But in any case this feels like the preamble to a punchline, all these people walking into a hotel bar.

Their interaction must reflect something Goddard wants to say about this time and place, but I’m not sure what.  They just happen on each other for no real reason other than luck or bad luck, some people die, and then the story ends.  It’s rather boiler plate, but the whole time you’re thinking there’s something else around the corner.  And maybe that’s the point?  That there’s no greater meaning here?  It reminds me of a Don Draper (Jon Hamm) quote from Mad Men in which he, the advertising executive, tells a beatnik type, “I hate to break it to you, but there is no big lie, there is no system, the universe is indifferent.”

And here there is just indifference.  Yes people spy on the clientele at the El Royale, but it’s just for money, not for some grand conspiracy to take others down.  The hotel might just be, as some suggest, a place for perverts and that’s it.  This isn’t the portal to some demonic underworld or to heaven, it’s just a place with some illicit activity.  The entire time we’re waiting for that portal to open up, for some answers to be given, but there are none.  There’s just indifference, blank slates onto which we project what we want to see.

And so for what this movie seems to be, well it’s nice enough, but it feels like a thinner version of a few different stories already told.  There’s the Twilight Zone quality and Reservoir Dogs, but more notably this movie tries to recreate an entire generation in one concentrated location, much like Arthur Penn’s The Chase (1966).  That was a film that seemed almost to parody the 60s, even as it was released in the middle of the decade before so much of the turbulence of the late 60s.

In that film chaos comes to a small town due in part to paranoia and what the townsfolk project onto an escaped criminal who in reality has no interest in shaking things up, as they imagine.  It feels like the perfect blend of the sensibilities of a 50s movie and the chaos of a 60s movie, beginning like an old melodrama before all hell breaks loose.  It’s a strange story that goes up in flames and seems to suggest this is what the decade as a whole felt like.

The El Royale looks to be imbued with the same significance, that through this lens, this location and these characters we can learn something about the era as a whole.  But I’m not sure yet what we learned.

Up Next: Every Thing Will Be Fine (2015), Kings of the Road (1976), Fear (1996)

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