After a lackluster close—Downsizing, which I skipped for a Takashi Miike movie because I believe in self-care—to last year’s festival, Fantastic Fest wrapped up its 2018 edition with a more on-brand title, the kind of buzzy Hollywood genre project the festival has been increasingly courting over the past few years: Bad Times At The El Royale (Grade: B), the star-studded new film from The Cabin In The Woods writer-director Drew Goddard.
So does this mean that the soul-searching and scandal that accompanied last year’s festival, and the high-profile withdrawal of Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri that resulted, was a mere blip? As far as Hollywood goes, that seems to be the case. Major studios had a significant presence at Fantastic Fest this year, with screenings of Halloween, Suspiria, and Destroyer as well as El Royale. But that’s only part of the picture. Hopefully, the festival’s internal housekeeping—new leadership, a new, strictly enforced anti-harassment protocol—will be sustained in the long term. (And there’s work still to be done: Policies around content warnings, in particular for films featuring sexual assault, are still evolving.) But there was a noticeable uptick in the number of female programmers, filmmakers, journalists, and attendees I saw at this year’s festival. And that’s encouraging—even if it means the line for the women’s bathroom will be a little longer from now on.
The demographic shift doesn’t seem to have affected Fantastic Fest audiences’ legendary, sometimes hyperbolic enthusiasm, presumably a big part of the reason why studios are eager to get their films in front of festival-goers. Basically, when people love a movie here, they really, really love it. And while The Cabin In The Woods didn’t play the festival, it’s still the exact type of film that inspires passionate reverence from Fantastic Fest audiences. Bad Times At The El Royale is very much a film from the same director, similarly setting up what seems to be a relatively straightforward ensemble piece and then sending it through the looking glass—or a two-way mirror, as is the case here.
If The Cabin In The Woods deconstructed slasher movies, Bad Times At The El Royale sees Goddard apply his twisty, paranoid sensibility to a Tarantino-style crime thriller, set at a kitschy roadside motel on the California/Nevada border sometime in the late 1960s. (The wallpaper alone will be practically orgasmic for midcentury modern enthusiasts.) We open with a long, unbroken time-lapse shot of a nameless man in a three-piece suit (Nick Offerman) pulling up the boards of a motel-room floor, stashing a bag underneath, and replacing the carpet and furniture to conceal any evidence of this buried treasure.
Fast-forward 10 years to a small ensemble of mismatched strangers, all standing in the El Royale lobby waiting to check in. There’s gregarious good old boy/vacuum cleaner salesman Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm); road-weary priest Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges); struggling soul singer Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo); and irritable hippie chick Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson), who signs the ledger meekly offered up by bellboy/manager/sole employee Miles (Lewis Pullman) with a defiant “fuck you.” All of them have secrets, and only one of them is the person they say they are.
Although the film is stuffed with quotable quips, Goddard’s dialogue doesn’t flow as naturally as Tarantino’s, which diminishes the pleasure of this largely dialogue-driven film somewhat. Goddard’s flair for structural mischief produces similarly mixed results: An early segment re-telling the same plot point from several different characters’ perspectives cleverly combines character development and game-changing plot revelations, but the introduction of new characters late in the film raises suspicions that Goddard might have blown up the story simply because he didn’t know how else to end it. This inability to truly stick the landing is especially deflating, considering the film is nearly two and a half hours long.
One aspect of the film that is consistently, deftly done is its marriage of sound and image: Bad Times At The El Royale weaves soul music (and one pointedly placed Deep Purple song) into its very DNA. Some of the music blares from the jukebox that reigns over the hotel lobby/bar where the film’s climactic action takes place, the clank of quarters falling down its slot and the click of records falling into place serving as sub-markers within the various chapters of the fractured storyline. Some of it comes from Darlene, whose a capella performances of ‘60s R&B hits (her rendition of the Righteous Brothers’ “Unchained Melody” is a highlight) establish her character as the emotional center of the piece.
Ervio is primarily a theater actress, but she holds her own wonderfully among the movie-star cast. Darlene is a real person in a film populated by quippy characters, and Ervio’s fed-up feminist monologue towards the end of the film—“I’m just bored of men like you. Fragile little men who prey on the weak and lost ... I’d rather sit and listen to the rain,” she says—nearly makes up for some of the film’s more frustrating character beats all on its own. It’s a promising development, for as Bad Times At The El Royale proves, even the most razor-sharp writer needs some humanity mixed in with the wit if they want to endure very long.