Tuesday, 16 October 2018

Bad Times At The El Royale (2018) - Movie Review

The plot: A priest (Jeff Bridges), a singer (Cynthia Erivo), a salesman (Jon Hamm) and a hippie (Dakota Johnson) all show up at the El Royale, a hotel that rests on the middle of the state border between California and Nevada. As they make themselves at home, under the attentive eye of concierge Miles (Lewis Pullman), the secrets and lies that brought them to this establishment begin to surface, and despite outward appearances, it seems like no one's hands are clean.

Bridges hasn’t been this good in a very, very long time. Always keeping this air of mystery and suspicion about him through every scene, he basically serves as the avatar for this film’s approach to character empathy. And quite honestly, he makes for the emotional highlight in a cast that has everyone on their A-game. Even actors like Dakota Johnson and Cailee Spaeny, who I was becoming convinced didn’t even have an A-game to be on. Erivo matches soulful delivery with equally soulful singing, serving as the one true innocent in the midst of all this chaos. Hamm as a vacuum cleaner salesman, while still wearing a bit of his Mad Men-era misogyny in his characterisation (which, admittedly, fits the setting), makes for a performance so engaging that it marks one of the few times I genuinely wished he was in more of the movie than he is. Still, for what we get out of him, it is immensely satisfying. Chris Hemsworth, without making too many direct comparisons to that other cult leader I looked at earlier this month, fills the frame with an aura of absolute control of his surroundings. He embodies the phrase “walking around like they own the place”. And then there’s Pullman, who goes from being a rather passive figure into a serious contender for Bridges’ place as the best thing about this film. Seriously, the character details we discover about him hit like a goddamn atom bomb.

But honestly, the performances here are only half of what these people so enthralling to watch on-screen. The other half is down to Drew Goddard’s writing, and even considering his flair for character study thanks to films like Cloverfield, The Martian, and of course The Cabin In The Woods, this creates an all-new high point for his body of work. He takes a similar approach to Cabin in how he presents a series of genre archetypes and dives deep into them to unearth details that are specifically designed to buck what is on the surface. And honestly, that effort results in some of the sharpest characterisation I’ve seen all year. Everyone here not only feels like they belong in this story, but that they also have enough reason behind for the audience to want to see them. Even characters like Hemsworth’s Billy Lee and the initial theatrics caused by Nick Offerman as the linchpin criminal that starts everything off fall into this, turning what could be basic caricatures into flesh-and-blood people.

I find myself in a similar position to Cabin In The Woods where I desperately want to dive in and dissect every character’s psychology in turn… but doing so means ruining a lot of the plot turns that brings those details to the forefront. As such, I’ll just say that everyone here has either had bad things happen to them, or they have done bad things to others, but no amount of supposed ‘sin’ makes it easy to hate these characters. Save for Billy Lee, but then again, that’s part of the point: No one likes cult leaders, especially nowadays. This seems to be something of a recurring trend, between this, Mandy, and Quentin Tarantino now working on a film based on the Manson family murders. I wonder why filmmakers are deciding to fixate on people who use their charisma to control what people say, do and who they should listen to, lest the people see just how hollow their so-called ‘saviour’ truly is. I mean, it’s not like the U.S. is in the grip of anyone like that right now as I’m typing this or anything(!)

Okay, backing away from the soapbox for a second, it’s actually not that much of a reach to bring political subtext into this, given the film’s intended setting. Between the inclusion of the aforementioned hippie cult leader, the shadow of the Vietnam War hanging over some of the characters and even the inclusion of a Richard Nixon press conference in an early scene, this feels like we’re supposed to take note of where and when this is taking place. This goes further under the skin of the premise, involving matters like hidden surveillance to help tie in the Nixon inclusion, resulting in a form of societal commentary. Goddard already showed a real viciousness along those lines with Cabin In The Woods, hanging the ‘torture porn’ horror trend out to dry and pointing the finger at those who perpetuate its nauseating existence. Here, he’s definitely in the same mode, but he’s a lot less vindictive this time around. He’s not here to call people out for their actions; if anything, he seems to be advocating for some modicum of empathy about these people.

One of the subtler moments in Cabin In The Woods that wound up adding to its subversive edge was how it emphasised the choices of the main characters. They were brought together for a specific purpose, but it’s only through their own actions and their own choices that that purpose could be fulfilled. Goddard basically adds onto that here, with a look into human morality and how our own action and choices affect who we are and ultimately create whatever our morality may appear to be. Given the inclusion of priests and pseudo-religious figures like Billy Lee in the narrative, the script makes it a point to highlight the typical good/bad dichotomy… and showing that, much like the state line that divides the titular hotel, it doesn’t matter what side you’re on; actions still have consequences, and guilt isn’t so easily assuaged by the thought that you did “the right thing” or even “the necessary thing”.

It leans somewhat into moral relativism, an absence of absolute morals in place of a case-by-case basis when dealing with situations, but it ultimately eschews most if not all universal morality and pins it down to being simply about people’s actions. Whether you’re unfortunate enough to remember everything you’ve done wrong in your own eyes, or you can’t even remember every transgression you’ve made, piety or sin matter far less than how that guilt rests on the human heart. This is the sort of philosophising that usually peeks through the cracks of some of the best noir features out there, including more recent efforts like No Country For Old Men. However, here, it feels like Drew Goddard is building on his ethos regarding storytelling, one that knows where the audience is (shown in this film with a recurring trend of two-way mirrors, again similar to Cabin) and what they want to see. And sure, this carries all the genre thrills one could ask for, from nerve-racking thrills to blood spray to even a few solid one-liners. But ultimately, Goddard wants us to look past the surface and see the unmistakably human underbelly. It’s a call for empathy through humanism that is quite affecting, especially when conveyed through characters that are so sharply defined as living, breathing and flawed human beings.

All in all, this marks another truly impressive notch in writer/director Drew Goddard’s belt. The acting is phenomenal, ranging from actors giving a shining gem of a performance to actors managing to outclass their already-stellar pedigree, the production values are sleek, moody and feature some outright fantastic music, the characterisation is among the sharpest I think I’ve ever covered on this blog, and the writing as a whole shows a definite love for the genre it sits in while also using that flair to detail some societal, cultural and even existential ponderings that makes for some solid cerebral thrills to match the well-framed viscera.

It ranks higher than Incredibles 2, as the level of technical and emotional prowess on display here manages to top even one of Brad Bird’s best efforts to date. Bad Times At The El Royale shows everyone involved at their artistic pinnacle to tell one hell of a good yarn that might even make you think, but will definitely make you feel. However, as much as I adore this film on so, so many levels, it still doesn’t quite measure up to the sheer mind screw that is Mandy. This film nestles itself deep within its own genre, whereas Mandy seems to transcend all genre and carves out its own lane. Well, unless you consider ‘batshit drug trip’ to be a genre in and of itself.

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