I love it when a movie offers up its own best critiques. I mean, I always want to love every movie and I’m always disappointed when a movie doesn’t let me love it, but if I’m gonna hate a movie — and boy did I hate this one — it’s kinda fun to speculate that maybe it knew all along, if only subconsciously, what its problems are and where it all goes so wrong.
So, the very first line of dialogue in Bad Times at the El Royale is this: “Are you lost, Father?” This is prescient, as El Royale is very lost indeed, right from the beginning, though the depths of its lostness aren’t obvious at first. Initially, as I waded all the stuff happening without any suggestion of an actual story about to kick off, just so many random and incoherent happenings that never move the film beyond spinning its narrative wheels, I thought: Dull Times at the El Royale. And yet things would go beyond dull and into infuriating very quickly.
A little later, that seemingly lost elderly priest, Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges), will apologize to the woman who was worried about him, Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo), and explain to her about the dementia that is slowly robbing him of his faculties. It’s genuinely a lovely little character sketch, and a sad one, what with Flynn’s embarrassment at being “scattered” and zoning out at inappropriate times, and thanks to Bridges’s talent for expressing the pathos of diminished manliness. (Erivo is also very good at not extending pity to him, her pragmatic character recognizing that pity would make him feel even worse.) Still, the scattered nature of this mess of a movie is by now starting to make itself plain, and Flynn’s little confession lands with precisely the wrong kind of thud.
But the best — the absolute best — self-own comes toward the end of the film, when Darlene is expressing, at a moment when a less pragmatic woman might be screaming in terror, her boredom and her exhaustion with men and their bullshit, especially men who love the sound of their own voices. In my head, Erivo gives a little take to the camera right at the end of her glorious little spiel, as if to say, “I am looking at you, Drew Goddard.” (Though in reality I am certain that Erivo, a TV actor making her feature debut here, is delighted that writer-director Goddard handed her such a juicy role, even if the movie itself turned out to be so deeply rancid. It’s not her fault. She is so good, and it’s such a shame that the movie is not worthy of her. She will also be seen in Steve McQueen’s upcoming heist thriller Widows — I’ve seen it; it’s superb and so is she — and is currently shooting Harriet, in which she portrays Harriet Tubman for director Kasi Lemmons fuck yes.)
El Royale is Goddard’s second feature as director, after The Cabin in the Woods, which so brilliantly deconstructed horror movies; he’s written many scripts, most recently the terrific The Martian but also the terrible World War Z. Here, he has seemingly been given free reign to do whatever he wants, and the result is not pretty: this is a self-indulgent disaster that, apparently, wants to invoke noir crime dramas, black comedies about bad people, and Tarantino-esque ultraviolence, all while being woke about the abuse that women endure and the toxic masculinity that damages men. Also too he threw in some stuff about how Violence Is Bad, even while his movie is extremely violent. And he can’t not be salacious about any of it at the same time.
Boy howdy, Goddard really does love the sound of his cinematic voice! He keeps showing us the same events occurring among the very few guests at the El Royale Motel seen from their different perspectives, which isn’t enlightening or even remotely interesting but is arty or philosophical or some shit? (Spoiler: It isn’t. It’s adolescent film-school pretense.) In addition to the priest, who of course is not quite what he seems, and Darlene, who is a professional singer with the voice of angel, the couple of other guests are vacuum-cleaner salesman (or is he?) Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm); and Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson), who checks in with a surreptitious kidnap victim (or is she?), Ruth (Cailee Spaeny). There is apparently only one employee at the entire establishment, nervous manager-clerk-cleaner Miles (Lewis Pullman), which seems unlikely. Why are there scarcely any people here? (There’s an attempt at explanation, about the motel being in a business slump, but it doesn’t quite work.) I was waiting for the revelation of something deeply sinister, perhaps even paranormal, to explain the implausible isolation of what we’re witnessing, perhaps à la Cabin in the Woods, or even the 2003 movie Identity, which unfortunately kept springing to mind; that one was also about a group of strangers oddly sequestered at a rainy neon-soaked motel. I hated that one, too, because it was “maybe the cheatingest movie I’ve ever seen,” but somehow it’s even worse that El Royale is nothing more than exactly what it is offering up on its tedious surface.
What is this going to be about? Where is this going? El Royale never finds a reason for its own existence. It never justifies anything it deploys for flavor. The motel is located on the outskirts of Tahoe, straddling the Nevada/California border — there’s literally a red line running through the building and the parking lot, with “California” labeled on one side and “Nevada” on the other. If this is meant to have some significance — something about borderlands or gray areas, maybe? — that’s never clear. The temporal setting is somewhere between the very late 1960s and the very early 70s, but who knows what that is intended to convey that setting it today wouldn’t have, other than a chance to wallow in some vintage retro set and costume design. None of this is enough flavor to satisfy on its own.
Bad Times at the El Royale utterly wastes its spectacular cast, which makes it all even more tragic. Shirtless Chris Hemsworth shows up later, and he’s a villain, and most definitely not the sexy presence the movie’s marketing has sold him as. Nor is he genuinely seductive, which his Charles Manson–esque cult leader is seemingly intended to be. All part of Goddard’s tone-deaf salaciousness. But Hemsworth has a moment when the look on his face tells you he could have pulled off so much more than desperately little Goddard was asking of him. Oh, and apparently The Good Place’s Manny Jacinto is in this, and honestly he didn’t even register, he’s so backgrounded, which is criminal.
Bad Times at the El Royale doesn’t have anywhere near enough there there to support its excruciating almost-two-and-a half-hour runtime. It never rises above the banality of its own obviousness. I wish I knew Goddard thought he was aiming at, but any point to this disarray is very much missing.
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