Wednesday, 17 October 2018

A label-defying film that offers up abundant treats

If films deserved plaudits for defying labelling, then Bad Times at the El Royale, would be winning them by the bucketload. But as if to illustrate the degree to which some people really need a label, it has received a decidedly mixed reception from reviewers and viewers.

It’s 1969 and the setting is the fading hotel of the title, which bridges the state line between California and Nevada. Here, half a dozen strangers converge, all bearing secrets.

First come guests Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges), struggling soul singer Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo), vacuum cleaner salesman Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm) and hippie Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson), to be met by Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman), the hotel’s sole employee.

In the background of the eerily quiet reception area and lounge, news footage shows police investigating a Malibu murder spree.

As each guest locks themselves into their room for the night, what drama could possibly play out?

By the time the sixth protagonist, Chris Hemsworth’s cult leader, arrives in the final third of the film, there have been plenty of twists and turns – and there are plenty more to come.

One of the prime complaints about Drew Goddard’s film is the length – it rolls in at 141 minutes. But length is only a problem if you’re sat in the cinema feeling uninvolved and wondering how much longer it’s going to drag on.

This, on the other hand, is incredibly inventive and engrossing: scenes unfold to explain the backstories of the main characters – and then unfold again, told from another character’s perspective. The characters themselves are far from simplistic and it's pretty pointless trying to guess their stories.

There is violence, but it’s used sparingly although, when it happens, it is genuinely shocking, even if Goddard doesn’t indulge in masses of gore. He doesn’t need to. Frankly, it’s difficult to think of a film that ratchets the tension up to the level that this does.

And thinking about that, 24 hours later, I realise that the last time I sat in a cinema and saw such a gore-free yet violent film, that built tension in other ways, was The Silence of the Lambs. And that was 1991.

Here, among the many things to admire, there is a tracking shot in the first part of the film – no spoliers here, but if you see the movie itself, you’ll know the scene when it comes up – that is simply stunning.

There have been comments that the film as a whole is ‘sub-Tarantino’, but since it never pretends to be anything like a Tarantino film, this is simply illustrative of how desperate needily some people need to find and attach labels.

Part of that is about being able to understand what youre seeing/have seen by categorising it.

The Other Half and I knew little about the film, having seen the trailer on TV (and then in the cinema) and concluding that it looked interesting, amusing and possibly a bit of a caper movie.

‘Psychological thriller’ probably describes it as a well as any label, yet looking back on it, you can’t help feeling that it’s something else. Not something else besides, but something else entirely. There are elements of Noir; it’s got a brilliant retro look, feel and sound; there are one or two funny moments, but … it doesn’t fit any obvious mould.

The performances are universally excellent. Yet even then, British actor Erivo, in her first film to be released (the first to be filmed, Widows, opens next month), stands out. To say she can act and she can sing is an understatement. And it’s really not stretching anything to think that she should be in the reckoning early next year come the Oscar nominations.

L-R: Jon Hamm, Lewis Pullman and Cynthia Erivo
Bridges is brilliant too – and so is Pullman, in only his second released film role. The latters performance is a revelation. For most of the film, we see him as pathetic. Only when we catch his backstory, late on, do we understand why he is what he is, and that he not pathetic.

This is a film where the characters are crafted so that we really care about them.

It's a film about all sorts of things: there is social commentary, though very subtly. Its about redemption – though not in a conventional way. Its about hagiographies and reputations and political legacies – its about how the state protects (or otherwise) those things. And all of it is razor-sharp relevant.

To add – Seamus McGarvey’s cinematography is just another of the joys that this film has.

Bursting with ideas and subtle comments about contemporary America (and the rest of the world), Bad Times at the El Royale is a genre-buster. And if you’re going bust genres, then this is the way to do it.

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