There’s of course, an argument to be made for Whedon himself, he does have two billion dollar films in his recent resume (one of them is quite bad, but I digress…), and then there’s Marti Noxon, whose efforts on Mad Men and the recent Sharp Objects, are worthy of acclaim. Jane Espenson was an integral part of Battlestar Galactica and Torchwood: Miracle Day, David Greenwalt created Grimm (a favorite of my mother’s, anyway), and Steven S. DeKnight showran one of the few good Marvel Netflix offerings in the first season of Daredevil. But frankly, I’m a film guy, and pound for pound, I think I’m ready to crown the end all winner of the crew to be Drew Goddard.
I mean, put it all down on paper: Goddard laid down the tracks for DeKnight on Daredevil, having written the first two episodes of that series as part of his initial development of the show. He wrote Cloverfield, and the only good Ridley Scott movie of the last 10 years in The Martian – netting an Academy Award nod – and of course his directorial debut in The Cabin in the Woods was one of the wryest horror comedies since Shaun of the Dead. I maintain that film is a real narrative wonder, and I’ve been hungrily awaiting what he was going to do next. We all thought it was going to be Sinister Six, which with him behind the camera gave me a modicum of hope for the entire Sony Marvel Shared Universe. But instead, perhaps thankfully, Goddard has gone his own way. A way that plays very close to clearly a key influence.
Bad Times at the El Royale is a cinematic experience best ACTUALLY experienced rather than described in a 700 word review. But the facts of the case: After a prologue set in the 1950’s, where a gangster (Nick Offerman) buries a bag of money in the floor of a motel and then ends up on the wrong end of a shotgun blast, we zip along a decade later, where four strangers arrive at the same motel, the El Royale. A kitschy locale, the motel that adorns the film’s title is a bit reminiscent of a Howard Johnson in its heyday, and carries the distinct gimmick of straddling the state-line between California and Nevada – with one wing of rooms being the California side (notable as the side where you can drink alcohol), and the other…you get the drift. These four strangers: A priest (Jeff Bridges), a singer (Cynthia Erivo), a free-spirit (Dakota Johnson), and a vacuum salesmen who seems transplanted right out of the antebellum South (Jon Hamm, playing very against type, despite familiar surroundings) find themselves in the now near-abandoned motel, save for one staff member who is the front-desk attendant, concierge, bartender, chef, and responsible for cleaning the rooms too. Each visitor, after a terse negotiation of who is going to stay in what room in a destination that is well past its prime, splits off and we’re whisked into a split tale that follows each guest, the makings of what brought them there, and the darker underpinnings of what the El Royale is really all about.
It’s a movie that I really think you’re best going in and knowing nothing about, but I’ll give you this much to work with, there’s an extremely clear Tarantino through-line. Each character is afforded their own intercut chapters throughout, and it’s structured in a way that it rather plays like a mix of Four Rooms with the tone, and the “base under siege” element, of Tarantino’s recent The Hateful Eight. There’s even a mysterious object that drives much of the back-half of the plot, just in case that sleeve of influence wasn’t apparent enough. Based on descriptors alone, I wouldn’t blame you if thought this was just weak tribute act material, but Goddard’s chops and clever approach to the material keep things humming along. No mean feat considering the running time is nearly two and a half hours. And while it slightly frays a tad here and there – we get it, Erivo has a lovely singing voice, and it goes to that well many times – it’s an engrossing, absorbing time at the movies. A solid pop thriller, filled with labyrinthian twists and turns, and a fine excuse for Bridges to continue to just have fun on screen.
It’s really quite an infectious sort of film, and honestly reminds me of when we would play some pretend as kids, and everyone got some horror movie type role. This is just the adult version of that to my mind, at least where performances are concerned. But Goddard, for his part, is aiming for something far more artful, especially when the meta-textual twist(s) come to bear, and we lean away from the Tarantino and into something a bit Hitchcock in its verve. It’s also an exercise in one of my favorite character development practices in that your preconceived notions are turned on their head as the night rolls on.
Plus, Chris Hemsworth shows up as a Charles Manson-type (just ahead of Tarantino’s own take on that story…fancy that!), and is shirtless most of the time, and his charm continues to command the camera everywhere he goes. He dances to Deep Purple, you’re not gonna get that in A Star Is Born, that’s for sure.
Ideally, this is the kind of theatrical experience you’d have at a drive-in, or one of those hipster theaters that serve popcorn in those white and red striped generic containers and have super creaky seats. But, honestly, take it however you can get it. This one has my seal of approval.