Bad Times at the El Royale: Looking In, by Scott Nye
A priest, a salesman, and a hippie walk into a motel. Don’t stop me if you’ve heard this one, because before long, the priest will be digging for buried treasure, the salesman making calls to Hoover, and the hippie dragging a woman, bound and gagged, into the modest accommodations the strangely evasive young manager can provide. Our only seeming bastion of normalcy is a black pop singer, who’s ill at ease amongst all these white people in this isolated locale sometime in the late 1960s. But she too has a few tricks up her sleeve.
Writer/director Drew Goddard rose through the ranks of J.J. Abrams’ stable of writers, writing on Lost and Cloverfield before making his directorial debut with The Cabin in the Woods. Like those films and TV shows, Bad Times at the El Royale succeeds more as mystery and suspense than it does at telling a complete story. But for those who delight in the unknown, it’s a hell of a good yarn.
At 140 minutes, it’s anything but slim and hardly dull. Goddard recognizes that the pleasure of this sort of story is in the not knowing, in having time to wander through the corridors of this odd motel and muse about its past and its inhabitants’ present. The structure – its most blatant steal from Quentin Tarantino in a film that steals a lot from him – keeps hurdling us into pasts both immediate (effectively creating a “meanwhile…” title card) and distant (years, to when this was all set in motion). The clearest distillation of its appeal comes when the salesman (Jon Hamm) finds a corridor looking into the hotel rooms through one-way mirrors. He wanders from room to room, its occupants unaware he is watching them dig, sing, and kidnap, set to the singer’s (Cynthia Erivo) stunning acapella rendition of “This Old Heart of Mine.” As with the best elements of the film, this scene lets us see just enough of these lives to stay intrigued, settles into the mystery, sets a groove, and moves along before we find out too much.
It’d be a stretch to say the rather accomplished cast – Jeff Bridges, Dakota Johnson, and Chris Hemsworth in addition to the above – does much to flesh out their characters beyond the archetypical deceptions they’re playing; Erivo, a Broadway star who’s venturing into film for the first time this year, does the most to distinguish her character, but arguably also has the most to play. The others are asked by the nature of the story to play a certain pulpy edge, into which they perhaps steer a bit too sharply, aware of the type of movie they are in. The acting beats are a little too beholden to the script, and while they execute those beats very well, they have a way of sealing themselves up inside of it, using it as a shield rather than an inspiration.
Inevitably, resolution must come to the El Royale, and those familiar with Goddard’s work will probably be unsurprised to find it less than satisfying. The mysteries remain intriguing, but its idea of the next step, of what happens after the motel, is more than a little facile. So it goes with mysteries, most of time. We’re not here for the answers though. We’re just passing through.