At least Cabin in the Woods had the sense to call it a day after misrepresenting the horror genre for 95 minutes. Bad Times at the El Royale misunderstands Quentin Tarantino for two hours and 20 and doesn’t stop fêting its own cleverness until the moment the credits roll. Writer-director Drew Goddard brings on the bursts of unexpected violence, ostentatious tracking shots, nonlinear narrative elements, and heavy-handed allusions to faith and salvation, sets them all to a soundtrack peppered with period soul and R&B and some ostensibly sassy dialogue, mixes it up, and strains it into a cocktail glass instead of serving it up in the red Solo cup it deserves.
This movie’s too much — too much banal dialogue, too much rote characterization, and especially too much fussy symbolic “world-building,” as Goddard throws out tenuous references to J. Edgar Hoover, Dick Nixon, JFK (I assume), and the Manson family. His El Royale is a creaky, cynical metaphor for America itself, with the film’s reflex-action bloodshed representing the chill that is purported to have set in from coast to coast after our hot summer of love. Does Goddard, born in 1975, have any real insight into that part of our national history? Beyond some conspicuously clumsy exposition that posits a cultural clash between California and Nevada (Goddard’s big conceit is that the El Royale is supposedly built on the state line dividing them), nothing that I can make out. The people here behave like people in movies behave; they do the things people in movies do. Beyond Goddard’s so-carefully choreographed shotgun blasts to the chest and glass bottles to the forehead — gotta give it to him, they’re so precisely timed they can make you jump in your seat even if you know they’re coming — there are no surprises here.
So, yeah, you’ve seen this movie before, even if it didn’t look this slick. Seamus McGarvey is a phenomenal DP but, my god, is his work cut out for him with the art department’s garish purples and blues, greens and golds, and teals and oranges kicking the shit out of each other in every frame. But he shot it on film and in anamorphic widescreen and it looks good. Lucky thing, too. If you shoot this material digitally and reframe it to fit an HDTV screen, you know what it would play like? A bad network TV show with squibs and a potty mouth.
SPOILER TERRITORY (hover cursor over box to read)
Casting Mad Men‘s Jon Hamm in this kind of blank, featureless endeavor takes some balls — or maybe it just represents a failure of imagination. His character, an undercover G-Man who seems overly confident in his vacuum-cleaner-salesman cover story, is actually kind of fun, especially when it seems for a few brief moments that we’ll get to watch him thread a needle between serving his bureaucratic masters and rescuing the damsel in distress they’ve forbidden him from helping. Jeff Bridges is fine, too, in a disappointingly one-note role where he spends 140 minutes getting less and less comfortable with the idea of masquerading as a priest.
The breakout star, though, is Cynthia Erivo, a singer worth hearing at length, even when a film this distended takes extra time out to let her do her thing. Still, Goddard is so dumbly, consistently attracted to the obvious — “Unchained Melody,” anyone? — that his on-the-nose song selections and preening camera moves actually undercut her considerable gifts. Alas, all of Goddard’s hotel guests end up essentially powerless once Chris Hemsworth shows up to close down the second act and start up the random executions. (I realized there was a solid 40 minutes of movie left when he arrived on the scene, and it made me want to scream.) He does write Erivo a couple of smart, stirring lines that constitute a sadly up-to-date #metoo moment and suggest that she’s the only character in the whole godforsaken picture who believes in anything at all.