Sunday, June 23, 2024

‘Bad Times at the El Royale’ Blends Style and Character With Mixed Success

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Bad Times at the El Royale feels at times like a script written for the stage, and at others, like a first draft. Structurally it’s hard to tell if it’s indecisive or unfocused entirely. Drew Goddard, the writer and director, is smart enough to give us grounded and complex characters to observe. Even as he himself forgets what he was doing.

Goddard’s script for Bad Times is less story and more a band of disparate characters who happen to meet at a motel. As all stories of this kind must go there are secrets, revelations, and a rainstorm late at night. Bad Times is at its heart—and by some degree in style—a noir.

Noirs are about people trapped by their own obsessions, actions, or loyalties. They mine the psyche of its characters and exploit them for dramatic, often cathartic purposes. Bad Times calls to mind Detour or The House On Telegraph Hill. Noirs about characters whose bad decisions and bad luck seem to pile up to an almost comical degree.

Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Ervio) arrives at the Royale only to see a priest, Father Flynn (Jeff Bridges). He stands silent and lost. The two are on opposite sides of a big red line that runs through the parking lot and motel. The line is the state line that divides Nevada and California.

The two exchange pleasantries and at once we get a sense for the dialogue. Goddard’s attention to detail about how people listen and talk is one of the great luxuries of Bad Times. Darlene clearly isn’t comfortable and Father Flynn is so clearly hiding something. Yet the two can’t help but play out the basic social contract of being pleasant to each other and making small talk.

Upon arriving at the lobby they are startled to see Dwight Broadbeck (Jon Hamm) already inside and making coffee. A loquacious and genial sort we get the sense that it’s all an act. But here is where I began to be tickled by how the characters talk. Set in the sixties, Goddard does not pussyfoot around about how characters talk to and treat Darlene, a black woman.

Without ever using slurs, Goddard shows us the constant daily indignities Darlene faces. He also shows us the cluelessness of those who wound her with their words. Dwight is a vacuum salesman. Upon seeing Darlene he smiles. “Ah, so you must work in the domestic services.” Darlene corrects him. He shrugs and hands her his card. “Anyway, you must know a few ladies who would need a vacuum.”

The trio discusses the whereabouts of the staff, the history of the hotel, and more small talk. Goddard and Seamus McGarvey, his cameraman, position the characters almost theatrically. They are placed throughout the lobby with great wide spaces between them, visualizing their feelings toward one another.

The bellhop, Miles (Lewis Pullman) arrives on the scene and notices the coffee they are drinking. Miles informs them the price of coffee is a quarter a cup. Dwight pays for Father Flynn’s cup but not Darlene’s. A priest or not Father Flynn can’t help but feel Darlene’s slight and offers his own quarter.  

Soon the quartet is joined by Emily (Dakota Johnson). Her car skids into the parking lot. A hippie, she seems to be in a hurry but wishes to be left alone. Her arrival is important because she is the catalyst for the whole day going haywire at the El Royale. Blame could be put on Dwight but setting aside what Dwight discovers; had he not seen Emily’s secret who knows if everything would have happened as it does.

Goddard seems to be of the J.J. Abram’s school of storytelling. These stories go out of their way to be as mysterious and obtuse as possible. They treat stories like a “puzzle box”. Bad Times is not as egregious or needlessly mysterious as most stories of this stripe. But it’s disjointed, non-sequential structure feels forced and unnecessary.

I’ll not delve too deeply into the plot because I’m not entirely sure it matters. Or, for that matter, if there even is a story to explain. Instead, watching what Goddard and McGarvey do with these characters is half the fun.

McGarvey uses neon light to great effect adding bright colors as mood signifiers to every scene. He and Goddard are less interested in whip pans and quick cuts and more interested in the most amazing thing a camera can capture: the human face. And what faces do they have! Cynthia Erivo is a Tony and Grammy award-winning actress and all but walks off with every scene she’s in.

Goddard wisely takes advantage of Erivo’s vocal talent and peppers the soundtrack with her vocals. Her rendition of This Old Heart Of Mine is stirring, haunting, and toe-tappingly catchy. Erivo has a presence and a way of standing that gives us little peaks into her character’s emotions and psyche. Alone she would be outstanding but she shares much of her scenes with Bridges and so she is raised to electric.

Bridge’s Father Flynn is a role tailor-made for him. A shambling, folksy, soft-spoken man who seems to always be slightly bemused at the events around him. While we never really believe Father Flynn is, in fact, a father, Bad Times entire mood and point is that no one is as they seem, we are left to wonder how much of his fumbling is an act.

Erivo and Bridges together are so good it’s a shame the movie all but grinds to a halt to introduce two more characters. Those two being Emily’s sister Rose (Cailee Spaeny) and her boyfriend a Louisiana cult leader Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth). As Bad Times races along, we begin to suspect that while we’re not sure how the movie will go, neither does Goddard.

The script feels like a first draft. Motifs and themes are presented, but dropped or repeated inconsistently. Even structurally Bad Times forgets itself. After the guests have signed in, a title card appears saying “Room One”. We then see Dwight settling in his room. After his story concludes we are shown another title card “Room Four” and flashback. This goes on a couple more times, but before we get to the other rooms Bad Times abandons this style of storytelling and instead begins to show us other scenes happening outside the rooms or even with other characters whose “rooms” we haven’t seen.

Bad Times wants to be about voyeurism, that much is obvious. Much like Hitchcock, Goddard is toying with us by keeping a distance from these characters. The rooms have two-way mirrors so that people in hidden hallways behind them can peep in or record the activities. The way the camera sits is always from an angle suggesting observation. But also much like Hitchcock Goddard seems to be merely reveling in the notion and duplicitous pleasure of our voyeurism.

Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom all but indicted everyone from the audience to the very nature of cinema even while he expertly manipulated our most base voyeuristic tendencies. Powell pokes us in the eye, demanding us to recognize our own complicity in this strange new common behavior of the twentieth century. But Goddard, like Hitchcock, seems wholly unconcerned with any moral implications voyeurism may have. Instead, he chooses to make it an aesthetic and while it is effective and at times evocative, I can’t help but feel it leaves Bad Times a little hollow.

At least it would be if not for Bridges and Erivo. The two light up the scene like old friends seeing each other after a long time apart. Witnessing actors work together at the highest tier of talent and having fun doing so, it’s worth the price of admission alone. Billy Lee, an oily smooth-talking psychopath tries to threaten Darlene. Her response to Billy Lee, without exaggeration, one of my favorite scenes of the year.

Billy Lee is the type of man who people always naturally obey and fear. Yet this black woman and the old white man seemed utterly indifferent to him. Like all young white men, he cannot stomach to be taken in any way other than serious. Upon discovering Darlene can sing he demands she does so at gunpoint. Father Flynn shakes his head. “Don’t. He doesn’t deserve to hear you sing.”

The look of hurt and confusion as Billy Lee experiences for the first time, a loss of power. A power that through his mere existence and privilege has always been practically a birthright. Yet, it’s only through violence and intimidation can he seem to have any effect. Yet, his eyes betray an uncertainty even with this line of attack.

Goddard has made a neon-lit noir thriller designed to showcase the talents of his cast. For the most part, he succeeds, though Erivo and Bridges can’t help but overshadow everybody else. Still, I did appreciate how Goddard understands and empathizes with his character’s moral and spiritual philosophies. Death is treated as sudden, violent, and not at all funny or beautiful. In a world where comic book movies reign supreme and death is treated so blithely that it’s used as a plot device to set up the next movie, it’s refreshing to see a movie treat death and dying with dignity and humanity.

Movies are tightrope acts. Oftentimes when you see what a movie is trying to do part of the tension is a private hope that it can pull it off. Bad Times doesn’t quite pull off what it wants to do, mainly because it becomes apparent it doesn’t really know what it wants to do. Still, it is effective and downright enthralling. Bridges and Erivo more than make up for any deficiencies of the plot or script.

For all its flaws, I find myself thinking back on Bad Times much more than I did First Man, a better movie; both technically and in execution. Bad Times is less realistic and much more artificial. It is not based on a biography or even real events. Yet, it stumbles upon the verisimilitude of being. First Man is a breathtaking cinematic event but Bad Times is interesting, fun, and when Erivo sings, transcendent. Bad Times may never leave the Earth, but it is far more transportive.

Image courtesy of  20th Century Fox

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