As the automobile became the symbol of American freedom in the 20th century, the roadside inn was an important adjunct to that. It began with Henry Ford, who in 1908 promised an affordable car for all. But the oh-so-American ability to suddenly up and hit the road really came into being with the advent of the motel (short for “motor hotel”) in the 1920s – which made it easier to travel greater distances. The motel, which functioned like a desert oasis, also became a favored setting for thrillers, with “Psycho” being the outstanding example. In “Bad Times at the El Royale,” the motel is not a mere backdrop to the actions of the characters who populate it, but an object of homage as well.
The heyday of motels is long gone; they have largely disappeared from the American landscape. International corporations have won out here too, smartphones now offer a much more efficient way to find accommodations when on the road, and of course cheap flights are also an option. So for writer and director Drew Goddard, the motel seemed an apt symbol to depict a gloomy time in America as a whole. Goddard already has an impressive resume as a screenwriter (“Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Lost,” “The Martian”), but this is just his second film as a director. As in his 2012 directorial debut, “The Cabin in the Woods,” Goddard uses a single location to put his own spin on an overused genre and its attendant clichés. This time he has set his sights on the crime thriller.
The film is set at the El Royale, a motel right on the Nevada-California border. A red line running through the building demarcates the border: One side of the lobby is built for gambling, the other for drinking. The year is 1969, and the motel’s glory days are behind it. A decade earlier, it was a real hotspot– as photos of celebs, Marilyn Monroe among them, on the walls attest. But the motel that once had boutique pretensions is outdated and empty. It doesn’t even have a gambling license. The staff has dwindled to just a guy named Miles (Lewis Pullman) who performs every task – when he’s not busy shooting heroin. Then one evening, four strangers show up at the motel all at once: An old priest named Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges), a smooth vacuum cleaner salesman named Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm), a singer named Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo) and a nervous young woman who registers under the name “Fuck you” (Dakota Johnson). All four, plus Miles, have secrets that are gradually revealed. Later, more guests arrive, including Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth), who at no point in the film stops to button his shirt. There’s no point in going into much detail about the plot. Suffice it to say that the movie has a lot of rapid twists, and no character is safe.
Without any one star who stands out from the ensemble, and despite the limitations of the location, Goddard piques the viewer’s interest with a complex plot and sharp, colorful dialogue. He jumps incessantly between different points in time and the characters’ points of view. Sometimes he goes back just a minute in time; sometimes he goes back a decade. Each of these leaps can change everything we thought up to that point. You think you’ve understood something, and then you get an alternative perspective on the same situation. A character may know something now that she didn’t know just half an hour ago. Goddard keeps chipping away at the viewer’s very fresh memory, through different eyes and different times, to shed light on a single, action-packed evening.
A bit tiresome
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The oft-heard description of the film as “Agatha Christie meets Tarantino” is apt up to a point. Goddard devotes the first half of the film to placing the exaggerated characters in one location and uncovering what each character is hiding. The likeness to Christie’s murder mysteries starts and ends here. The Tarantino inspiration is clearer: all the cuts in time and in the narrative, and the aesthetic of the violence. On the surface, Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight,” in which a group of shady characters were gathered in one space, seems to bear the most resemblance. But here, too, Goddard sets himself apart. His tactic of filling the script with American crime clichés lays the groundwork for the deconstruction and reassembly of the thriller genre.
Even though it remains in one location, “Bad Times at the El Royale” doesn’t get stuck in place. The editing and cinematography enliven the static setting as we gradually learn more about each of the mysterious characters. Flashbacks reveal the different circumstances that lead them all to the El Royale. The main problem is that Goddard doesn’t know when to quit, to let go of what happened in the past and take the plot forward. After 140 minutes with a small number of characters and many points of view, the audience feels like it knows every corner of every room of the motel, and it gets a bit tiresome. Despite having crafted several different time-shifting stories with a high degree of precision, and despite having skillfully built up the tension, Goddard can’t quite pull off the ending. The various threads fail to come together neatly, and the movie’s climax is needlessly drawn out.
With nostalgia being such a major aspect of current commercial cinema – about as much as superheroes – “Bad Times at the El Royale” might at first seem to be just more wistfulness from an imagined past. Many in Hollywood are riding the nostalgia wave, but Goddard isn’t looking to the past for comfort. His version of 1969 contains nary a mention of Woodstock or Neil Armstrong. For him, this is the year of Nixon, Vietnam and Charles Manson.
The film nonetheless relies on the collective memory of the Sixties, with its familiar and super self-aware retro design. This is nostalgia with a wink: A scene might feature a catchy tune – and use it as a soundtrack to murder. This knowing attitude also loses some of its charm after a while.
Is Goddard trying to say something about the death of the American dream? About the death of optimism? Or to propose a metaphor for the human soul that’s divided between the sunlight of California and the dark sins of Nevada? Maybe, maybe not. By the end of the film, after countless leaps back and forth, right and left, any intended message has gotten lost. On the other hand, it’s interesting to see an ambitious Hollywood director who’s not afraid to gamble on the audience’s attention in this way. Even when he misses the mark, which happens more than once, “Bad Times at the El Royale” still offers plenty of blood and suspense and crisp dialogue.