In some ways, Drew Goddard’s Bad Times at the El Royale plays like a spiritual sequel to The Cabin in the Woods, deconstructing neo-noir in the same way that Cabin deconstructed slasher horror. The set-up is pretty simple – a collection of motley characters find themselves staying for one night at a hotel outside of Reno – but the film quickly twists and turns from one new perspective to the next, as we follow Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges), singer Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Ervo), kidnapper Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson) and vacuum salesman Dwight Broadbeck (Jon Hamm) as a thunderstorm seals off access to the outside world, amidst an ensemble cast that also includes Chris Hemsworth, Nick Offerman, Xavier Dolan and Jim O’Heir. From the very outset, it’s clear that this hotel exhibits the same ludic spatiality as the cabin in Cabin, since it literally looks like a board game from some vantage points, setting the stage for a homage to Clue, Sleuth and other game-like films as much as an exercise in retrospective neo-noir. Indeed, if the film has any really authentic period vibe, it doesn’t lie in the evocatively appointed fixtures, or cultural and historical references, but in this sense of the plasticity and physicality of space – the heaviness of space – which has largely dissolved in the wake of digital film, but is brilliantly revived here.
In other words, physical space, and the physical space of the hotel, is presented as the main antagonist of the film, forcing the characters into ever more ingenious and curious spatial orientations in order to survive the long night ahead. The first shot we see in the film is of a character deconstructing, and then reassembling, one the hotel rooms, part of a broader pattern by which Goddard continually revisits the same event from different, occluded vantage points, revealing more and more spaces concealed within other spaces, and more and more perspectives from which spaces can be reconfigured and respatialised. Beyond a certain point, that means that every object in the film is also a space, as suitcases, floors and telephones all turn out to contain hidden vestibules, or else every object in the film gathers a bespoke space around it, with every conceivable item, from sandwiches to wine, turning out to be compartmentalised and regulated by some broader structure. In addition, Goddard sets music against space in quite a visceral and embodied way, to the point where music isn’t presented as something that occupies space, or provides a human point of entry into space, but instead articulates the overwhelming heaviness and plasticity of space itself, resulting in one frame after another in which music is dissociated from the human voice, and from human agency – or, alternatively, in which the jukebox that acts as the point of focus in the El Royale lobby takes on an autonomy that exceeds that of any single character.
That spatial curiosity also provokes an obsession with spatial thresholds, not least because the El Royale is positioned right on the California-Nevada border, which is represented as a thick red line that cuts directly across the carpark, lobby and entrance to the hotel. This threshold is a continuous motif in the story, from the receptionist’s standard greeting to his “bi-state establishment,” to the administrative and legal differences between the Nevadan and Californian rooms, to the state-shaped key rings that are kept behind the front desk. In the same way, Goddard structures the narrative around the thresholds between different rooms, and the threshold between each character’s perspective, typically arranging things so that the different stories are always on the verge of converging right before he shifts to someone else’s perspective. With each new shift in perspective, then, the space of the hotel resumes its opacity and impregnability, meaning that no character ever seems to conceptualise the El Royale in its totality at any one point in time. As the film proceeds, it emerges that Bridges’ character, Father Flynn, has dementia, and regularly wakes up not knowing where he is – and the whole film feels a bit like that each time that it restarts too.
As with The Shining, that produces a space that feels as if it would remain incoherent even if you were able – or the characters were able – to properly map it. With long pauses in the dialogue, and long shots that place a great deal of distance between the characters, you’re always aware – and they’re always aware – of the space surrounding and separating them, especially because the film also uses surround sound in a particularly cavernous and disorienting manner. All the characters’ interactions are mediated through this plastic spatiality, and many of the most memorable moments simply involve single characters negotiating or trying to map this spatiality, with the result that Hard Times at the El Royale often feels like a compilation of solo performances as much as a fully integrated ensemble drama. While sudden lunges and shocking assaults do sometimes cut against that spatial ambience, they are quickly absorbed back into the looming plasticity of the El Royale, as so many impotent attempts to make an inroad into a space that repels every human effort to compute it. Similarly, although Goddard may include some fairly lavish sequence shots, they tend to emphasise the overwhelming spatiality of the hotel rather than orient us in any way.
For the first two acts of the film, that’s all really engaging, even if it is a bit hard to care about the characters, who feel more like ciphers or pawns than fully-fleshed out humans. For a film so obsessed with plot mechanics, there also also a few pretty big plot holes, while the long pauses and distended duration don’t always land either. Nevertheless, it’s all carried by Goddard’s supreme spatial curiosity and sense of comedy, so it’s a bit of a disappointment when the film devolves into a fairly tedious third act, which takes place entirely in the hotel lobby, and is entirely devoid of the spatial curiosity and comedy of the first two stanzas. In part, that’s a result of the entry of Chris Hemsworth, who plays a similar role here to Channing Tatum in The Hateful Eight, and is also a bit of a buzzkill, swaggering his way through a pretty thankless screenplay with very little in the way of comic timing or charisma. While the rest of Hard Times has a bit of a hypothetical quality, it’s here that it really starts to feel like a mere idea for a film, rather than a fully executed or complete film.
To say that the film goes off the rails, though, as many critics have done, is not quite accurate either, since even that implies some kind of enjoyable excess or flamboyant taste for spectacle. Instead, it feels as if the film doesn’t really know how to end, or can’t conceive of a conclusion commensurate to the complexity of its spatial scheme – because no such conclusion exists – resulting in an indeterminate final set piece that jettisons all the spatial curiosity of the opening two acts for a sub-Tarantino exercise in criminal quirkiness. Poised somewhere between The Hateful Eight and Tarantino’s upcoming film about the Manson era, this laborious conclusion desperately tries to reinject some ludic dynamism into a staid and theatrical mise-en-scene, from a macabre roulette game, to a series of contrived dancing sequences, to the final cult death topos that is dramatically exhausted before it has even begun. Best to remember Hard Times, then, in terms of the promise of the opening – to remember it as a hypothetical film, or an idea for a film – since in that respect it’s wonderfully evocative, and for a moment feels as if it could take in every conceivable twist.