‘Bad Times at the El Royale’ Is Film School Material. It’s A Piece To Be Studied.

I almost didn’t see Bad Times at the El Royale because I heard it was violent. And a bit creepy. Those are two elements that don’t sit well with me — and it was enough to make me hedge a bit at the theater, where I opted for the safer — although undoubtably more boring — First Man instead. It only took a few minutes of Ryan Gosling mourning his toddler’s serious illness, and her death, for me to ditch that film and duck into El Royale, which was just starting in the theatre next door.

(I don’t know why the daughter sub-plot bothered me so much, especially in those early scenes, but perhaps I had an intuitive hunch of what was to come and how it might not be completely grounded in reality. When it comes to dramatic license for emotional effect, it was a particularly low blow.)

It was Dakota Johnson’s interview with Jimmy Kimmel that made me particularly interested to see El Royale — she said it was original, unlike anything you’d seen. A quick search revealed that Drew Goddard, the writer-director, was also behind some of my most favorite episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I was put off by the idea of violence, but it turned out to be less grotesque than I expected.

There’s an element to Buffy, one of the things that makes it such an enduring piece of fiction, that seems to be at the heart of El Royale, and to me it’s why the new movie works so well. It’s perhaps true that the movie borrows genres, maybe it’s Tarrantino-like (I’ve never been a fan, which means I’m not up on his catalogue), but for me it just works. Because, like with Buffy, the movie seems to have a memory, and it unfolds appropriately.

In one of the Buffy commentaries — on a DVD, I assume, although I’m running completely from memory (speaking of which) here — Marti Noxon said that they didn’t lose information on the show. In other words, there’s no important detail that is just forgotten or deliberately omitted if it doesn’t neatly fit into a future plotline. Also, there were always consequences in Buffy. Everything that happened had an effect.

Buffy, therefore, was inherently, or subconsciously, karmic. Cause and effect was the rhythm of the entire series. Faith and Willow were good, then bad, then good again, but they had to work towards redemption. Their forgiveness and welcome back into the Scooby fold had to be earned, and even after that process things were never quite the same as they had been before.

That, in my estimation, is the central idea behind Bad Times at the El Royale. There are always consequences, and opportunities for redemption. Power is short-lived, especially when it’s fear-based power, which collapses as soon as the subjects find an escape. At the end of this movie, the two who make it out alive are 1) blameless and 2) almost blameless, respectively, and the one who has something for which they must atone gets a kind of absolution through a kind act.

It takes awhile for this movie to get going, but the build-up is essential for the climatic scenes when the group finally comes together, almost all experiencing trauma at the hands of Chris Hemsworth, whose cult-leader villain is terrifying in his ability to simultaneously disarm and perform brutal acts of violence. Dakota Johnson’s Emily is too hardened, and her ability to inflict damage too pronounced, that her apparently well-intentioned reason for being at the El Royale quickly loses its luster. It’s tough to be sympathetic towards her, even if she ostensibly has good intentions. Meanwhile, Jeff Bridges’ aged crook has an unexpected vulnerability that, true to that claim of originality,  is of the type that has never been shown on-screen in this particular context before, as far as I know. His vulnerability is a daring and poignant choice.

And the hotel manager. He’s at once the most, and least, responsible for his moral burdens, which turn out to be perhaps the baddest of the bunch. It’s a challenging human analysis, which doesn’t shy away from complexity.

Someone wrote somewhere, or posed in an interview to Goddard, that the El Royale is a kind of purgatory. Indeed, I expected the place to have supernatural elements, if only to explain the strange coincidence of this combination of characters meeting in this deserted place all at once, and none of them being able to leave (cue my favorite episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, actually not written by Drew Goddard). It turns out not to have anything spooky going on (spoiler alert) except what could be pulled out of the depths of the human psyche. But it nonetheless is a kind of metaphoric purgatory, where the characters have to face death and, in so doing, the checks and balances of their own moral codes.

It was in that roulette wheel scene where Bad Times at the El Royale reminded me of something that could be analyzed in a film class. It suddenly pieced together so well, really without warning. It’s a study of filmmaking that actually says something, or forces the audience to question their assumptions about who’s right and wrong in this scenario. Because at the end of the day, even the blameless one decides to partner with a bank robber to get the cash. But then, after what she’s experienced, she sort of deserves it, too.

I plan to see this movie again, because I missed the first few minutes. I had been in the theatre next door, after all, getting upset at the spectacle of Ryan Gosling’s moon-trotting hero going through a family crisis. The rest of that one I think I’ll forego, because unlike El Royale, it’s just a cheap movie trick designed to make us feel without making us think.

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Categories: Great Movies

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