Genre deconstruction is awesome when done right. When it’s done wrong it comes across as trite, like the filmmaker doesn’t actually understand the very genre they want to take apart. However, when it’s done right you get films that help define the very genre they’re deconstructing. Take the likes of You’re Next and Cabin in the Woods or even Deadpool. They do more than just pointing out the tropes of their genres, they add something more to the mix.
That’s what Bad Times at the El Royale does as well, but in a different way. Instead of deconstructing a specific genre, it mashes together a whole wealth of genres and delivers an utterly unique, unpredictable, and unexpected movie that never stays still long enough to be anything but itself. It’s the kind of genre-busting film that’s hard to review because the lexicon isn’t even there for it. Whatever it is in a grander thematic sense, Bad Times is good in every way.
Bad Times at the El Royale
Director: Drew Goddard
Release Date: October 12, 2018
El Royale opens with four seemingly normal folks checking into the titular hotel, which is an out-of-favor establishment that sits halfway in California and halfway in Nevada, a red line running through the entire property demarking the split. We’re introduced to vacuum cleaner salesman Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Joh Hamm), Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges), singer Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo), bellboy Miles (Lewis Pullman) and hippy Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson). None of them are who they seem, of course, as they check-in to a hotel that’s more a metaphor for their current state in life than a physical place. The film goes on from here, divided up into loose acts about each character that jump around in time, but never get confusing. Speaking anymore to the plot or to who Chris Hemsworth’s Billy Lee is would ruin a lot of the fun of how the film plays with genre and changes itself as it goes along.
Goddard is in his peak genre deconstruction form that made Cabin in the Woods so much fun and The Good Place one of the funniest shows on television. It’s a skill to make the audience think they are watching one thing, and then pull the rug out from under their feet, subverting all their expectations and launching them into an entirely different thing. The trick to it, as Goddard shows, is doing whatever you’re doing with such quality and conviction that the audience is fully committed to it, then blowing it up with the same amount of quality and conviction as you built it. Whatever the genre is, Goddard dives into it with abandon and that means when he suddenly veers in a different direction you’re both taken fully by surprise and happy to go along with the new play.
In El Royale‘s case, what starts out as appearing as an Agatha Christy mystery turns out to be a spy thriller, political satire, horror, religious allegory, Hitchcockian affair, full of visual innuendo about being watched, the male gaze, and cinema in general. It’s a directorial master class in framing, mise en scene, and cinematography that should establish Drew Goddard as much more than just the guy who perfectly eschewed horror tropes in Cabin in the Woods. There are enough twist and turns thematically in the film to warrant several more viewings, and yet impressively the storyline is both straightforward and clear. Nothing is sacred to the movie, though, that’s for sure. It revels in its unpredictability as it veers through its story.
It’s all grounded by two stellar performances. Bridges and Erivo deliver turns that are near Oscar-worthy, as they play off each other in fantastic fashion. Bridges especially has a fantastic bit of monolog, with the camera stuck right on his face, that is far more moving than its word should allow. Hemsworth is also utterly enjoyable in a role that takes him through so many phases it’s hard to pin it down.
If I had to level a complaint at the film its that its pacing can be slow. Goddard lets his movie unfold as slowly as his Bridges’ draw comes out of his mouth. It’s not something we as an audience are accustomed to, especially in a genre film, of which El Royale is — even if that genre is “all of them.” This means the movie runs on for well over two hours, at times simply content to pan the camera slowly back and forth between rooms in a voyeuristic ballet of framing, storytelling, and time consumption. It is something to behold how steadily and assuredly Goddard stays with a single shot at its own pace instead of the audience’s, content to let the story play out on an actors face or through the visuals.
There will be further discussions about Bad Times at the El Royale. I’m not sure when, though. It’s the kind of film that can fly under the radar for years before being “rediscovered,” or one that people will pick up on right away and look to unpack every nook and cranny of it. What can be said for now is that even without all that unpacking, El Royale is one heck of a surprising film that relies on thematic and tonal shifts to affect its twists and turns, while telling a story that is far from anything you’ll see on the screen in any other film.