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Non-Review Review: Bad Times at the El Royale

Bad Times at the El Royale is over-stuffed, over-long, and unfocused. It is a muddle of big ideas thrown against one another, the sparks flying in whatever direction they will.

There is a sense in which writer and director Drew Goddard wants Bad Times at the El Royale to be about everything, to find some space within the movie for just about every possible allegory. It is difficult to explain what Bad Times at the El Royale is actually about, for reasons that extend beyond contemporary spoilerphobia. This is a movie that feels at once like it has important things to say, and a very abstract way of trying to say them.

Red guy at night, Hemsworth fans’ delight.

There is also something brilliant in all of this, in the way that Drew Goddard swings wildly at such a broad array of big ideas in such a surreal context. Bad Times at the El Royale is packed to the brim with big ideas, offering a story that could easily be read as scathing political commentary, powerful religious allegory, or biting social satire. It is an unashamedly odd film that is wrestling with a variety of interesting themes. If it can’t pick just a handful to focus upon, it is because there are so many rich veins to tap.

Bad Times at the El Royale is a bold and infuriating piece of pop art. It’s also unashamedly ambitious and enthusiastically esoteric. It’s a movie that certainly won’t be for everybody, but it is broadcasting very strongly on its own distinctive wavelength.

Flower power.

Perhaps the best way to look at Bad Times at the El Royale is to examine it as a spiritual companion piece to The Cabin in the Woods, perhaps Drew Goddard’s other big piece of allegorical cinema. Of course, this comparison does not flatter Bad Times at the El Royale. Most obviously, Bad Times at the El Royale lacks a script from Joss Whedon, with its arch dialogue and wry observations. The Cabin in the Woods also has the benefit of a much tighter focus, constructed as a meditation on horror cinema and spectatorship. Bad Times at the El Royale goes a lot broader.

However, there are enough similarities to suggest the two films as siblings. Both Bad Times at the El Royale and The Cabin in the Woods are stories about a group of people who find themselves isolated in a remote location where nothing is as it appears to be. Both Bad Times at the El Royale and The Cabin in the Woods suggest that these actors in this remote location are subject to the whims of forces that exist beyond their control and beyond their awareness. Indeed, these central metaphors of voyeurism and control run through both films.

While The Cabin in the Woods is very much a story about horror films, both the industry that produces them and the audience that consumes them, Bad Times at the El Royale has a much bigger target in mind. This is a film that is consciously positioning itself as an abstract metaphor for society itself, a meditation upon broad themes like identity and morality, authority and responsibility. “Let’s have ourselves an allegory,” boasts one character at a certain point, suggesting the level at which Goddard is pitching Bad Times at the El Royale.

Bad Times at the El Royale is a movie full of twists and turns, with plenty of reveals and reversals. However, a lot of the movie’s identity and perspective is suggested by the premise. This is a film that is set primarily in a cheap motel, an old establishment that has seen better days. Motels are potent allegories in American cinema, associated as they are with a transitory existence and the freedom (and anonymity) of the wide open road. Motels are a place of danger and mystery, where nobody is who they appear to be and where nobody understands one another.

Worth checking out?

Bad Times at the El Royale certainly commits to this premise on the outset. Motels are spaces where characters are thrown together randomly, where strangers find themselves to be neighbours and where everybody is just stuck waiting to move on. It is a place that is once familiar and dangerous; a room with a bed that is never a home. A motel exists as a liminal space. It exists in the gap between where people came from and where people are going. A motel is never a destination of itself. It is never an end point. It exists between places and times.

Bad Times at the El Royale commits to this metaphor. The eponymous hotel is not simply a between space by virtue of being a cheap stopover motel “where you can pay by the hour if you ask real quiet.” It is a motel that exists literally between two places. A thick red line runs through the parking lot and into the hotel, bisecting the institution; one half is in Nevada and one half is in California. This dividing line is essential to the motel’s status as a space between. The thick red line cuts so deep that it is even drawn in the service corridors and spaces away from the public eye.

None of this rings true.

Of course, this dividing line undercuts (in a very literal sense) the idea of a place that exists between places. The thick red line suggests an absolutism. Characters are always in either California and Nevada, and the line ensures that they always know where they stand. Bad Times at the El Royale is packed with these sorts of binaries, even as background details; the red and black of the roulette wheel, two women wrestling in the light of a bonfire, the option of sandwiches or pies in the commissary.

Any number of more abstract dichotomies suggest themselves. At one point, a television news bulletin features a press conference in which President Richard Nixon discusses the idea of a “ceasefire” as a “term of art”, arguing for the firm delineation between peace and war that might not actually be possible in the context of Vietnam. Later on, the philosophical cult leader Billy Lee ruminates at length on contrasts like “good and evil” and “right and wrong.”

You can check out any time you like, depending on which half of the hotel you’re staying in.

Naturally, the characters in Bad Times at the El Royale also define themselves in binaries, often with or against one another. When Father Flynn shows up at the El Royale, the contrast of his black-and-white outfit provides a nice reflection of how the characters all define themselves in opposition to him. Miles Miller and Laramie Seymour Sullivan both distinguish themselves from Father Flynn by identifying themselves as followers of different faiths. Darlene Sweet positions herself more strongly as an atheist, rejecting religion almost completely.

The biggest divides in Bad Times at the El Royale are personal. Two sets of siblings try to reconcile over the course of the film, in their own unique ways. In both cases, the film emphasises how far apart these sets of siblings are from one another, whether through overt conflict or simply through the distance of time and space. More than that, many of the characters within Bad Times at the El Royale are themselves divided down the middle, who they actually are existing in stark contrast to who they claim to be. Masks and wigs are recurring motifs within Bad Times at the El Royale.

Performance is itself a major recurring element in Bad Times at the El Royale. The film opens with an impressive long take that morphs into a time-lapse sequence that positions the audience in the fourth wall of a motel room, suggesting the production design of a stage play or a fifties sitcom. This idea comes up again and again over the course of the film, whether through Darlene Sweet’s musical performances or in the repeated shots of characters studying themselves (and being studied) in the mirror.

A major plot point of the film hinges on the gulf that exists between an individual’s public persona and their private life, and the friction that exists when those two are thrown into conflict. What happens when somebody isn’t what the public believes them to be? What sort of damage can such a betrayal cause to the national psyche? Is it possible to draw a line down the middle of people and separate the good from the bad like in the El Royale itself?

Everybody has a loot to hide.

Bad Times at the El Royale returns time and time again to the idea that other people are fundamentally unknowable to one another, that travelling through the world means surrounding one’s self with strangers who will always remain mysterious. The film emphasises this in a number of ways, most notably in the recurring gimmick of replaying a particular scene from several different perspectives in order to offer the audience something resembling a holistic point of view on what actually happened. Context is very slowly revealed through personal flashbacks and reveals.

Bad Times at the El Royale is getting at a number of big and sweeping ideas with these recurring fascinations, perhaps too many big ideas. There is a lot of material about faith and belief in Bad Times at the El Royale, suggested in everything from repeated references to prayer through to the present of the priest right down to the image of footprints on the beach. Does the hand of God exist in the universe, or is everything meaningless? Are people drawn together by chance or for some greater purpose? It’s a big idea, and Bad Times at the El Royale never quite develops it.

Rain of terror.

However, it serves as a gateway into other interesting ideas, such as what happens when men try to position themselves in authority, as the arbiters of morality who can divide the world into neatly delineated boundaries. Bad Times at the El Royale returns repeatedly to the idea of authority, with both Father Flynn and Billy Lee positioning themselves as representatives of divine justice. (Hemsworth’s casting even hints at divinity.) Similarly, it is suggested that the motel itself is caught in a vaguely defined struggle between two other authorities – the FBI and “the management.”

These are all suitably broad ideas, all playing into an allegory for the idea that hell is other people and that human beings are inevitably responsible for the overwhelming majority of suffering on the planet, particularly when trying to leverage themselves into positions of authority. In some ways, the sixties setting seems designed to evoke a broad anthology feel of something like The Twilight Zone, with the motel itself serving as a not-especially-subtle metaphor for America itself.

Royale-ly screwed.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Bad Times at the El Royale works better when it gets a bit more focused. Most obviously, the film unfolds against the backdrop of early 1969. The film is saturated with cultural markers, from the casting of Jon Hamm as a performative sales man through to the appearance of Richard Nixon on a television set. Bad Times at the El Royale is haunted by the spectre of late sixties traumas; the Civil Rights movement suggested by the constant prejudice facing Darlene Sweet, the Manson family cult led by Billy Lee, even the lingering horror of the Vietnam War.

If the eponymous motel is to be read broadly as a metaphor for America itself, then it makes sense that the institution has fallen into disrepair. (Much like The Grand Budapest Hotel is a metaphor for the decline of Eastern European social cohesion in the mid-  to late-twentieth century.) Bad Times at the El Royale suggests a fraying at the edge of the collective consciousness, a damage inflicted upon the psyche from which the country would never quite recover.

After all, 1968 was one of the most turbulent years of the twentieth century for the United States. There was massive civil unrest, with the country threatening to tear itself apart. The tide in Vietnam was turning. Civil Rights protestors were taking to the street to assert their right to exist. The Democratic Convention turned into a riot. The summer of love had evaporated in a wave of disappointment, the hope and opportunity supposedly represented by idyllic California festering into the horror of the Manson Family murders. The country even elected Richard Nixon, whose resignation would leave a deep and lasting scar.

Against this backdrop Bad Times at the El Royale suggests that there is discomfort and frustration simmering at the heard of the American identity, that social order has broken down and that institutions cannot be trusted. Bad Times at the El Royale returns time and time again to corrupted authority figures, to those unable or unwilling to discharge their moral obligations to their fellow man. The bellboy cannot even be bothered to turn up, while Father Flynn struggles to remember his church hymns. “Some mornings I wake up and I don’t know who I am.”

Hammering its themes.

This chaos and mistrust inevitable leads to acts of shocking violence and brutality. If people cannot trust one another, they inevitably turn on one another. Those big red dividing lines become lines in the sand. This fear and paranoia is manipulated and exploited by those who claim to see through the system, but ultimately just want to manipulate the system to serve their own selfish ends. Bad Times at the El Royale suggests the end of the sixties as a point of moral chaos. Kurt Anderson has argued that it was perhaps the moment that America lost its grip on consensus reality.

Bad Times at the El Royale is driven by a knowing irony. The hotel exists on the border of Nevada and California, on the western edge of the North American continent. There is even a sequence set in the Pacific. However, Bad Times at the El Royale repeatedly hints that the frontier is long gone, that very little work remains to the west worth claiming, despite Sullivan’s eager desire to “stake [his] claim” for a room in California.

Things come to a head.

Instead, Bad Times at the El Royale suggests that the American dream has doubled back on itself. Nevada, not California, is presented as the ideal destination for those looking for “hope and opportunity”, as if to suggest that such lofty goals have bounced back on hitting the unyielding Pacific Ocean. Notably, Darlene Sweet is travelling eastwards to pursue her dream, travelling from California to Nevada in order to break into showness. There is something perverse in the idea of somebody retreating east to become a star. It suggests that America might be broken.

Of course, Bad Times at the El Royale isn’t really about the late sixties at all. It is a broad metaphor that feels very much aimed at contemporary America. The film is saturated with sixties imagery and iconography – and a killer soundtrack – but only to suggest that the trauma of the period still lingers. After all, the political nightmares of 2016 were frequently compared to those of 1968, suggesting an obvious doubling between that past and this present. Bad Times at the El Royale doesn’t belabour the point, but it makes it strongly enough. If the film unfolds in the hangover following 1968, it is released in the wake of 2016.

The box office returns on Infinity War are in.

To be fair, there is a sense of indulgence here. Bad Times at the El Royale runs for two hours and twenty minutes. Some of that is due to Goddard cramming as much material into the film as possible, while some of it is down to his willingness to let moments and scenes linger. In particular, Bad Times at the El Royale devotes several extended sequences to Cynthia Erivo delivering vocal-only covers of classic sixties songs, sequences that are powerful and evocative, but also somewhat excessive.

Goddard also provides a number of technically-impressive longshots in order to establish and develop mood, particularly when a willingness to edit multiple takes together might result in a more efficient and more tightly paced film. At the same time, as much as they are indulgences, they help to build atmosphere. In particular, Goddard’s long takes are often understated, reflecting a willingness to just leave his camera on his actors and push and push out. Goddard savours these long moments, which eventually develop into their own extended rhythm.

Bad Times at the El Royale is sure to be a polarising film. It is a movie that is unashamedly what it is, with very little in the way of artistic or creative compromise. There is never a sense that anything important to Goddard is missing, or that the director has been forced to trim something important or essential to his film. On the contrary, Bad Times at the El Royale often feels like a bunch of big ideas bundled together in order to squeeze them into a single narrative. Bad Times at the El Royale buckles a little under this commitment, but ultimately holds together.

Bad Times at the El Royale is well worth a visit for those with a taste for esoterica.

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2 Responses

  1. Great write up! I’m looking forward to this. A+ usage of shirtless Chris Hemsworth photos by the way.

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