2018 Film Essays

Empathy Through Voyeurism: ‘Bad Times at the El Royale’ Review

The opening shot of Bad Times at the El Royale (screenwriter Drew Goddard’s second feature as a director after his meta deconstruction of the horror genre with 2012’s The Cabin in the Woods) is a locked-off view of the inside of a hotel room. A mysterious man arrives, and as he goes about his business within the room (business that is quickly revealed to be criminal), time skips forward but the camera never does. The man turns on a radio, letting the sound of music fill the room, as it provides a soundtrack for his clandestine activities. After a while, the proscenium through which the audience watches this scene is violated. The man looks straight into the camera, as if he were looking at himself in a mirror. Viewers don’t see the mirror, however — instead, they are the mirror. The implication of the audience’s participation and presence engenders instant empathy for the man in the room, making one complicit with the events that befall him a few moments later. The same holds true for the rest of the characters in the remainder of the film. Goddard makes it clear that while they’re revealing their secrets to each other, they’re also revealing them to those watching.

That distinction is a subtle one, but it’s felt all throughout the film, making Bad Times at the El Royale an excitingly unique experience within a rather standard genre structure. The setting is pure film noir, as seven characters, dripping with mystery (as well as the constantly pouring rain) gather coincidentally (or do they?) at the El Royale hotel in 1969. The setting has a glamorous past, situated on the border between California and Nevada, as maintenance man Miles (Lewis Pullman) explains in his over-rehearsed introductory speech: superstars and powerful public figures used to come to sin in all sorts of ways, before the hotel lost its gambling license. The El Royale may be in disrepair, as America’s road-faring habits give way to luxury airplane travel, but it still attracts a clientele who wish to remain hidden rather than be seen for all sorts of reasons: a loudmouth vacuum salesman (Jon Hamm), a down on her luck singer (Cynthia Erivo), an aging and ailing priest (Jeff Bridges), a standoffish woman (Dakota Johnson), her younger sister (Cailee Spaeny) and their Charles Manson/Jim Jones-esque benefactor (Chris Hemsworth) are the guests whose lives and goals get mixed up with one another’s. 

That, of course, means that Bad Times at the El Royale is an ensemble picture, and Goddard — along with his cast — rises to the challenge of juggling multiple leads and storylines admirably. That element of theatricality in the opening scene is present throughout the film, as oftentimes cinematographer Seamus McGarvey’s camera will happily stay put while the group fills the anamorphic widescreen frame. If the camera does move (and, in the film’s 141-minute running time, it has plenty of chances for that), it not only reveals and conceals various secrets (allowing for some moments of genuine, brutal shock) but shows off production designer Martin Whist’s remarkable set, each room filled with detail that Goddard never focuses on too much yet provides even more character detail, about the hotel’s history as well as the characters themselves. Composer Michael Giacchino provides a surprisingly choir-filled score, which contrasts nicely with Goddard’s hand-picked source music cues, featuring era-appropriate jams such as the Four Tops’ “Bernadette” and Deep Purple’s “Hush.” Quite frequently, though, Goddard will hand the film’s soundtrack over completely to Erivo’s stunning voice, as she sings a capella (live on set, not pre-recorded) during several crucial scenes. When Erivo’s Darlene sings, it’s always at a turning point for her character, the film or both, drawing a parallel between the act of making art and the impetus for it.

The impetus for Goddard’s art can be easily discerned, as he wears his influences on his sleeve. Everything from classic film noir (especially Jacques Tourneur’s 1947 classic Out of the Past), to Key Largo (1948), pulp fiction,and Pulp Fiction (1994) — in fact, the influence of the collected works of Quentin Tarantino and the Coen brothers can be felt here, drawing as they did upon the past pioneers of crime fiction. The theatrical, play-like nature of the movie connects it to old standard Agatha Christie (and her knockoffs) drawing room whodunnits, and the film’s preoccupation with voyeurism and voyeurs puts it firmly in the tradition of Alfred Hitchcock, whose entire filmography was preoccupied with the relationship between movie audiences and nosy perverts. Yet Goddard delineates his film from its influences by focusing almost exclusively on character. Rather than a story filled with twists and turns and manipulation of the audience (though, given the film noir genre, there’s still a fair bit of that), Bad Times at the El Royale presents each character’s story as a solo vignette, before tying it into the overarching drama. This approach creates a sense of empathy for every character, even the highly disreputable ones, resulting in a surprisingly emotional experience. 

More from Bill Bria: The Experience of Death in the ‘Phantasm’ Series

That experience comes at a bit of a cost, however, as Goddard is in no hurry to rush through exposition or character interaction. The film is clearly written by a writer in love with the craft of writing, and — as it unfolds and doubles back on itself — it feels, at times, like an entire season’s worth of storytelling crammed into nearly three hours, and creates a sense of fatigue in the third act. It’s unfortunate that Tarantino’s experiment with bringing back the roadshow film experience from the 50s and 60s with The Hateful Eight (2015) didn’t take off, as Bad Times at the El Royale is the perfect type of film to benefit from a breather in the middle. Yet the rewards overcome the pacing issues, as each character is given an individual story arc that makes them much more compelling than if they’d been shallower archetypes. The cast knows it, too, as their performances are fantastic across the board, with the standouts being Spaeny’s freaky hippie groupie, Bridges’ world weary old man (when has Bridges not been likable, after all?) and Erivo, owning the screen every moment she’s on it.

Bad Times at the El Royale is a movie best seen cold, without foreknowledge of its major reveals, but there’s one reveal worth mentioning, especially as it’s, well, a non-reveal. Goddard makes a point out of setting up a mystery regarding the “management” of this “pervert hotel,” a group who give orders to secretly document the activities of certain rich and powerful guests and lay claim to the resultant film footage. Not only is it never said what happens to this footage, but the identity and ultimate purpose of the “management” is never made explicit. Or is it? That first shot, viewing a man in a hotel room without his knowledge, does more than just implicitly implicate the audience — Goddard’s ultimate twist, one-upping Hitchcock, is that viewers are the “management.” We periodically go to ornate, neon-sign-covered locations to sit in the dark and watch the lives of others (fictional or not) play out, and the more sordid, the better. With Bad Times at the El Royale, Goddard has obliged the audience, giving his management what they desire, and made sure to take good care of his beloved characters at the same time, telling their stories in full. You can watch all you like, but the element of empathy will always be there. 

Bill Bria (@billbria) is a writer, actor, songwriter and comedian. ‘Sam & Bill Are Huge,’ his 2017 comedy music album with partner Sam Haft, reached #1 on an Amazon Best Sellers list, and the duo maintains an active YouTube channel and plays regularly all across the country. Bill‘s acting credits include an episode of HBO’s ‘Boardwalk Empire’ and a featured parts in Netflix’s ‘Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’ and CBS’ ‘Instinct.’ His film writing can also be seen at Crooked Marquee as well as his own website. Bill lives in New York City. 

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