Bad Times at the El Royale is beau­ti­ful to watch

Gulf Times Community - - REVIEWS - By Katie Walsh

Even though Bad Times at

the El Royale is only the sec­ond film he’s di­rected, writer and di­rec­tor Drew God­dard is al­ready an au­teur. He made his name as a TV writer on Buffy the Vam­pire Slayer and Lost, and wrote scripts for such films as Clover­field, World War Z and The Mar­tian. But with his 2012 di­rec­to­rial de­but, the dev­il­ishly clever hor­ror flick The Cabin in

the Woods, God­dard proved what re­ally makes him tick: the meta genre ex­er­cise. The con­tained ho­tel mys­tery Bad Times at the El

Royale is an­other ex­er­cise in genre play. This time, it’s the retro crime thriller.

Set over one night in the late 60s’, a group of mis­fits check into the de­serted El Royale ho­tel in Lake Ta­hoe, which strad­dles the bor­der of Cal­i­for­nia and Ne­vada, a state line run­ning right down the mid­dle. Priest Fa­ther Flynn (Jeff Bridges), singer Dar­lene Sweet (Cyn­thia Erivo), vac­uum sales­man Laramie Sey­mour Sul­li­van (Jon Hamm) and a grumpy young hip­pie (Dakota Fan­ning) re­tire to their rooms, where all their se­crets come out to play. Money, mur­der and may­hem en­sue, and the pulpy, twisty story and swing­ing 60s’ style make Bad Times at the El Royale feel like an episode of Mad Men with a Tarantino twist.

With a daz­zling ar­ray of stars play­ing shady char­ac­ters with murky pasts, one char­ac­ter in the film truly stands out: the El Royale it­self, a sparkling mid­cen­tury gem of a set pro­duc­tion de­signer Martin Whist built in Van­cou­ver. Un­for­tu­nately, there’s no book­ing rooms at the El Royale, but oh, how we wish we could, with its plush din­ing room, golden juke­box and many pat­terned wall­pa­pers. The El Royale also sports quite a unique fea­ture, a se­cret hall­way be­hind the rooms lined with two-way mir­rors, all the bet­ter to spy on the guests.

As our group of se­cre­tive trav­ellers starts to dis­cover the de­sign quirk and re­alise they’re be­ing watched, and can watch oth­ers, God­dard’s favourite theme man­i­fests: and what it means to watch, un­seen, the way movie au­di­ences do. It’s about the con­struc­tion of im­ages, how im­ages can re­veal, con­ceal and toy with our per­cep­tion. He splat­tered the idea across Cabin in the Woods, but here, it’s more like eavesdropping, though no less dan­ger­ous. Un­aware view­ers just might find them­selves tak­ing a face full of buck­shot if they don’t know their place.

Although ac­tors like John­son, Hamm and Lewis Pull­man as the neu­rotic concierge are end­lessly watch­able, Bad Times be­longs to Erivo, and Bridges, her wor­thy scene part­ner. The Tony win­ner walks away with the film as the plucky Dar­lene, who uses her voice for sur­vival, whether it’s to make a buck or ca­jole a mur­der­ous cult leader (Chris Hemsworth), who charges the ho­tel look­ing for one of his run­away girls (Cailee Spaeny).

Erivo brings the soul, and Bridges the heart, while God­dard is the brains of the op­er­a­tion, find­ing the plea­sure in colour­ing within the lines of those very spe­cific generic ex­pec­ta­tions and lim­i­ta­tions. Ev­ery puz­zle piece clicks to­gether smoothly, and while there is joy in watch­ing ev­ery­thing fit, the film feels like there’s some­thing miss­ing. It lacks true sub­stance. It’s all aes­thet­ics, no guts. But damn if the Bad Times aren’t beau­ti­ful to watch. – TNS

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