After the sturdy filmmaking economy of Hotel Artemis, it’s rather depressing to witness the belabored post-modernism and needlessly hip temporal machinations of Bad Times at the El Royale, not the worst kind of cinematic “cunning,” but close to it. Finally returning after directing Cabin in the Woods – and his mostly indifferent, mildly pleasurable screenplay for The Martian – Drew Goddard’s Bad Times is a vital compendium of many of the worst tendencies of mainstream “intellectual” storytelling. Goddard’s screenplay traverses an astonishingly circuitous route toward a largely banal resolution, superficially name-checking a variety of late ‘60s thematic signifiers – racism, classism, post-hippie fallout, cultish masculinity, the miasma of the oncoming ‘70s, a zeitgeist-y inability to trust in leaders – tepidly and arbitrarily. It expends all of its energy quite overtly ticking boxes on the path toward a moral parable that, at best, has little to do with any of the above, and at worst, actively avoids them to get from point A to point B, pulling themes out of a hat and getting bitten by the rabbit when the carrot at the end of the stick turns out to be a phony.
Any meaningful post-modern aesthetic exposes the fallaciousness, or at least fragility, of previously accepted realities, an inquisitive sense of uncertainty as a necessary moral conviction for coping with modernity. Bad Times certainly realizes this, but its manner of exploring truth and fiction is both ham-fisted and essentially trivial, at least for the most part. Visually, Goddard’s film is actually on superior footing, skillfully converting mid-century noir tropes to its late-‘60s milieu. In fact, Seamus McGarvey’s crisp, often crimson cinematography is the film’s saving grace, exorcising any of the grainy realism films conjuring that turn-of-the-‘70s spirit usually rely on as shorthand. It’s scintillating stuff, and it effectively teases out the essentially performative, artificial nature of this hall-of-mirrors we’ve been subjected to. The image-first, wheel-and-deal world of LA Hollywood and Las Vegas alike (beacon cities of the two states the titular motel straddles) are visualized in a style which lets us know that no one, least of all the film, is revealing themselves to us, or playing fair in a world where honesty will get you killed.
How ironic, then, that the screenplay of El Royale is clearly at its best when at its most sincere. The faux-post-modern confusion so thickly baked into the narrative is only surface-level, an affectation the film sometimes mistakes for its essence. In fact, the attempts to present many segments from different vantage points nearly fell the film entirely, which functions far more assuredly as a simple, 90-minute morality play, especially when it focuses on the burgeoning friendship between its two moral centers, Catholic priest Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges) and struggling soul singer Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo), at least one of whom (along with everyone else in the film) is not who they pretend to be. Despite the fact that both of them may be lying, their interactions are genuinely evocative, exposing the human fragility and loneliness layered beneath the thick cake of performative artifice they adopt in their personal and professional lives.
Which, in essence, is the film’s problem: it’s clearly wedded to its thick cake of slippery truthfulness, and it certainly tries to have this cake and eat it too, to sincerely dramatize the plights of a handful of characters who happen to have checked into this hotel on the same day and, conversely, to amaze us with its absurdly Tarantino-aping teases and comic filigrees. Theoretically, those impulses aren’t contradictory, but it would take a more thoughtful screenplay that this to reconcile its competing strands, or, more importantly, to thematize any question in a way that the film hasn’t forgotten five minutes later, on its merry way to another question. Bad Times is a film that is up to a lot of business, in other words, and it is never especially invested in figuring out how to weave together any of its strands.
I have no idea what convinced Goddard, for instance, other than hubris or distraction, to include a sub-plot involving a vaguely New Age cult in a Manson modality, featuring Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson) as an escaped cult member and cult leader Billy Lee (Christ Hemsworth), who functions as little more than a ticking time bomb for the film to exorcise whatever demons it still has left to show us. And, having included that sub-plot, I have no idea what behooved Goddard to pivot the entire final third of the film around this sub-plot, dramatically stalling what momentum the earlier portions of the film had accrued. Better is a sequence starring Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm), a gregarious Mississippi vacuum salesperson with an obviously affected drawl, although the character, I suppose intentionally, amounts to nothing. Unlike the bellhop Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman), who is initially a comic side-character mildly skeptical of the moral viability of the El Royale for a priest such as Father Flynn. Somehow (and I’m really not sure how), Miles emerges as the moral fabric of the film’s final minutes, a woefully unearned conclusive statement about the Vietnam War. Seemingly because it’s 1969, and that’s just what films set in 1969 do I suppose.
All of this is to say, Bad Times at the El Royale is a relatively incurious motion picture all things considered, but it sure thinks of itself as curious, the polar opposite of Hotel Artemis’ astonishingly elegant casualness and offhand way of insinuating quiet moral and dramatic morsels out of the tiniest of gestures. While that film truly trusts its audience and threads side-line themes and marginal tragedies without breaking an ounce of sweat – despite its clear choice to amount to little more than a B-picture – Bad Times is a ruthlessly inelegant piece of trash, a B-picture which has construed itself as a genuine A-picture, a film with something to say, and which wants us to know that inclination time and time again. At times, it’s worthwhile as a found-object from another time-period – an unabashed Tarantino-knock-off in 2019 – but there’s a reason they stopped making these around 2006.