‘El Royale’ a pale imitation of influences
To watch Drew Goddard’s “Bad Times at the El Royale” is to encounter an undeniable cinematic gift, but one that seems to have been nurtured on toxic waste. Goddard knows how to sneak up and startle an audience and capture its attention, but it’s as if the entire moral structure of his film has been derived entirely from other movies, and he seems to have learned the wrong lessons from his elders.
Goddard has the pessimism of the Coen Bros. without the humor and grandeur, the nihilism and nastiness of Tarantino without the wit and the vision, and the cuteness of Wes Anderson without the color and flair. So Goddard is one frustrating case, too talented to be dismissed, but a talent in service of nothing, and seemingly aware of nothing, as if it never occurred to him that 141 minutes of clever ugliness doesn’t constitute an epic — epics being, not just a matter of size, but of thought and spirit.
The movie begins with a long shot of a gangster, circa 1960, entering a motel room. He breaks up the floor boards and buries a suitcase, then puts the floorboards back together and covers it up with a rug. This wordless scene goes on and on, fooling you into thinking you’re encountering a main character, but finally culminating in the gangster’s getting killed and the movie’s skipping ahead 10 years. This sets a tone: Here’s a filmmaker with the ability to surprise, but not delight.
As in Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight,” several characters converge on a single location, in this case a Lake Tahoe hotel that sits right on the border between Nevada and California. The first to arrive are a Southern salesman (Jon Hamm), a backup singer (Cynthia Erivo) and a Catholic priest (Jeff Bridges) and what follows is a bloated, charmless conversation, driven by the salesman character, with Hamm failing to do a convincing Southern accent (perhaps intentionally).
Later a young hippie (Dakota Johnson) shows up, and it’s soon revealed that she has kidnapped another young woman (Cailee Spaeny). Add in the very Catholic, very guiltridden hotel clerk (Lewis Pullman), and the crew is complete, at least for this early stage of the movie.
Goddard gets good things from most of his actors. Alas, Hamm can’t strike the right note, and Chris Hemsworth is absurd as a Manson-like cult figure — the movie takes place in 1969 — but Johnson overcomes her Anastasia Steele passivity and finds herself as an assertive presence. In strong company, Erivo distinguishes herself with a performance of steadiness and probity, and Jeff Bridges does what Jeff Bridges does. He is human, true and deep, and always real.
Obviously, the actors didn’t just step onto the set and start talking. Goddard wrote these lines and directed these performances, so there’s hope for the future. Even here, there are individual scenes that light up, such as the leisurely conversation between the singer and the priest, and the long and practically avant-garde sequence, in which an FBI agent discovers that every room has a two-way mirror. One also has to admire Goddard’s double-surprise trick: Several times here, he hits the audience with a big surprise and then hits us again, with a second surprise, within 10 seconds.
Unfortunately, every time there’s a step forward, there’s a step back. Too often Goddard stops the action and cranks up the sound track, as if trying to lend an air of meaning and portent that just isn’t there and can’t be manufactured. In its last third, as the movie collapses into tiresome nihilism and pointlessness, Goddard starts insisting even more emphatically that the proceedings are important. He slows the movie down just when it needs to speed up, and we get more musical interludes.
Goddard has a weird problem. He has an advanced ability to say things, but he has nothing to say. Time will tell whether he has nothing to say, in general, or nothing to say on this one occasion. But the directorial talent is there. Now if he can just be persuaded to let someone else write the script next time, we might have something serious to talk about.