Stephen Romei

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film Reviews -

“I will shoot you in the face, be­lieve me.” “I be­lieve you.” One of the glo­ries of Bad Times at the El Royale is that, by a cer­tain point, this ex­change could be be­tween any one of the six main char­ac­ters. Amer­i­can writer-di­rec­tor Drew God­dard made his name as a scriptwriter with a bent to­wards the su­per­nat­u­ral and space, from Buffy the Vam­pire Slayer on TV to The Mar­tian, for which he re­ceived an Os­car nom­i­na­tion.

In this, his sec­ond movie as a di­rec­tor, he con­sid­ers an alien we all en­counter every day: other peo­ple. Ev­ery­one is more than they seem to be. In­side, we all have more go­ing on, for good or bad, than any­one else re­alises.

The set­ting is a mo­tel that strad­dles the border be­tween Cal­i­for­nia and Ne­vada. A red line runs through the prop­erty, mark­ing one state from the other. “Warmth and sun­shine in the west, hope and op­por­tu­nity in the east,’’ is the prom­ise. It was a hoot back in the day, as the celebrity snap­shots on the walls show, but now it’s run-down and all but de­serted.

The movie opens with a bril­liantly struc­tured scene in which a man checks into a room. He’s be­suited and silent. It’s the late 1950s. Some­thing hap­pens in that room. A decade later — a tele­vi­sion shows us that Richard Nixon is pres­i­dent — three peo­ple walk into the mo­tel lobby, look­ing for rooms. They’re not to­gether.

Let’s just call them what they are on first Bad Times at the El Royale (MA 15+) Na­tional re­lease Hal­loween (MA15+) Na­tional re­lease sight: a Catholic priest (Jeff Bridges), a soul singer (Cyn­thia Erivo) and a vac­uum cleaner sales­man (Jon Hamm). Af­ter some awk­ward de­lay they are met by the mo­tel clerk (Lewis Pull­man). They are soon joined by a hip­pie (Dakota John­son). Aus­tralia’s Chris Hemsworth doesn’t ap­pear till later, but he is worth wait­ing for. He’s a cult leader. Charles Man­son comes to mind.

This ex­tended scene in the lobby cre­ates an al­most un­bear­able ten­sion, and that’s well be­fore Hemsworth brings his game along. We im­me­di­ately have sus­pi­cions about some of the char­ac­ters. This will only in­ten­sify, and per­haps shift a bit, as the film goes on and se­crets of the peo­ple — and of the ho­tel — are re­vealed.

The per­for­mances are all top-notch, es­pe­cially from Erivo and Bridges. And Pull­man’s grad­ual emer­gence as some­one who is more than a mo­tel clerk is an eye-opener. The son of Bill Pull­man, he’s a young actor to watch.

God­dard and Os­car-nom­i­nated Irish cin­e­matog­ra­pher Sea­mus McGar­vey show us what hap­pens in a slow but ab­sorb­ing way. Our view of events is not the same as that of the char­ac­ters. I ap­plaud God­dard for hav­ing the courage, in this mul­ti­plex age, to drop hints as to who else and what else might be in­volved in the story but to stop short of spell­ing it out. He also un­der­stands that any char­ac­ter is ex­pend­able.

The sound­track cap­tures the rad­i­cal shift from the 50s to 60s. As a friend notes, the mo­tel juke­box is a char­ac­ter. The movies that came to mind as I watched were 40s and 50s noir crime dra­mas such as John Hus­ton's Key Largo, with Humphrey Bog­art, Lau­ren Ba­call and Ed­ward G. Robin­son, and the ear­lier work of the Coen broth­ers, par­tic­u­larly Bar­ton Fink (1990). Of course ho­tels fea­ture in both those movies.

Bad Times at the El Royale is a rare beast: a 140-minute film in which every minute de­serves to be there. Hal­loween, the 1978 orig­i­nal, di­rected, cowrit­ten and scored by film­maker and com­poser John Car­pen­ter, is a pi­o­neer of the slasher genre. The movie, the screen de­but of Jamie Lee Cur­tis, was crit­i­cised as misog­y­nis­tic, voyeuris­tic and over-vi­o­lent, and for shar­ing a psy­chopath’s point of view. It was also watched by a lot of peo­ple. It cost $US350,000 to make and earned $US70 mil­lion. That suc­cess led to nine fol­low-ups, in­clud­ing a re­make in 2007.

Now, with the 11th movie in the fran­chise, we have some­thing a lit­tle daring. Hal­loween, di­rected by David Gor­don Green, is a di­rect se­quel to the orig­i­nal that ig­nores all the movies in be­tween. It is set 40 years later and Lau­rie Strode (Cur­tis), the only sur­vivor of Michael Mey­ers’s Hal­loween night mur­der of teenage girls in an Illi­nois town, is a grand­mother.

In the open­ing se­quence, the best in the movie, two jour­nal­ists meet Michael (Nick Cas­tle con­tin­ues in the role) at the men­tal asy­lum where he’s been held since 1978. He has not spo­ken in that time. When one of the jour­nal­ists holds up the ghoul mask Michael wore, the re­sponse from the other in­mates is har­row­ing.

The Hal­loween killer is about to be moved to a new fa­cil­ity on — huge sus­pen­sion of dis­be­lief re­quired here — Hal­loween. Ditto with the fact that the peo­ple in this town still leave large carv­ing knifes unat­tended.

Lau­rie has been con­fined too. She lives in a for­ti­fied house and has lots of guns. Her daugh­ter and grand­daugh­ter think she should for­get about the past and move on, a judg­ment that is tested when Michael es­capes from the trans­fer bus. He soon shows that his tastes have broad­ened be­yond teenage babysit­ters. When he ap­proaches a baby’s crib it is hard to watch.

The twist is that Lau­rie does not want to run and hide. She wants to kill Michael. “He’s waited for me. I have waited for him.”

This loom­ing face-off be­tween vic­tim and killer car­ries the movie, which is a solid enough ad­di­tion to the se­ries. Will gun-tot­ing Lau­rie see off knife-wield­ing Michael? I think the town sher­iff may have an in­sight there. He ad­mits that Michael be­ing out and about on this par­tic­u­lar date is bad news but adds: “But wadda ya gunna do? Can­cel Hal­loween?”

Chris Hemsworth in Bad Times at the El Royale, left; Jamie Lee Cur­tis in the lat­est in­stal­ment of Hal­loween, above

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