The Pulpy, Whodunit Nightmare of 'Bad Times at the El Royale'
There's something oddly thrilling about seeing a movie star get abruptly shot on screen. It's jarring. We expect these beautiful, charismatic people to be the heroes of the story, carrying it through until the end. One second they are just that, and the next they are suddenly just gone, dead, out of the movie entirely. It's a technique that Bad Times at the El Royale uses to great effect (although to be fair sometimes it isn't a gunshot, it's just getting your head smashed in by a wine bottle). These shocking acts add what I'll call the "Game of Thrones Effect," where no one character is more important than the story or too precious to die, so anything can happen at any moment. It really keeps the audience on its toes and ratchets up the suspense. Of course, it helps when you have as many stars in your movie as this one does. Jeff Bridges, Dakota Johnson, Chris Hemsworth, Jon Hamm. Let's just say "bad times" was an appropriate title for the fates of some of their characters. But this movie desperately needs the Game of Thrones Effect. Because its set up is so simple it could be a joke. "A priest, a vacuum salesman and a club singer walk into a hotel..." That's not to mention the cult leader, the hippy, the guilt-ridden veteran, the kid-napped child or the gimmicky jukebox. Specificity is one of the great tools in storytelling, and every single person and place in this film are incredibly specific, even pulpy. It makes suspension of disbelief easier knowing there's clearly no way something like this could ever happen. And since this is a whodunit, naturally nobody is who they say they are and everyone's hiding something. There's a plot twist every half hour! When I left the theater, the first thing I did was go home and google "Bad Times at the El Royale book." It doesn't exist, but everything about this movie screams literary. The structure of the movie is literally laid out in chapters, with actual title cards coming up over a black screen between them. Each chapter is told from a different person's point of view and reveals a different character's backstory, just like a book would do. It makes for a really creative game of vantage point, as we see the same events happen from several different points of view, with each one revealing just a little more about the mystery so we can try to piece it together. It's a really fun style, and even though I often find flashbacks to be a lazy crutch, I didn't mind these breaks in chronology. Because the characters are lying so often in the present, these backstories were needed to figure out who people actually were and what they wanted. If anything, the movie gets in trouble by committing too much to the bit, as one final chapter break flashes on screen in the middle of the climactic scene, eliciting audible groans in my showing. The biggest difference between the movie and an actual Agatha Christie novel is the lack of a central mystery. There's nothing for the audience to figure out, and when you stop to think about why these people are going around killing each other, it doesn't really add up. But this is a chamber drama, and in that genre it excels. The 1970 setting is a perfect canvas for complicated racial and economic politics. There's plenty of reasons why these people would start killing each other if they all get stuck in a creepy hotel. Why does any of it need to make sense? Sitting back and watching as the puzzle pieces slowly fall into place, intentions slowly get revealed and characters get taken off the board (unceremoniously, as mentioned off the top), this movie can be a total thrill ride. It's funny at times, tense at others, and thoroughly entertaining throughout. This is a movie that doesn't scream "get to a theater right now!" But don't sell it short. It can make for a fun time at the movies any night of the week.
Murder on the Orient Express (1974)
Yes, yes, I'm well aware that this movie was remade last year. But this is the "something old" section, and frankly Sydney Lumet did it far better in the '70s. It seemed like an appropriate choice, given that this was based on Agatha Christie's most popular book by the same name. Unlike Bad Times at the El Royale there is a central mystery here, as well as a central hero in detective Hercule Poirot. He's essentially a Sherlock Holmes character with a giant twirly mustache, played in this edition by Albert Finney. If you know the story you know how important the supporting characters are, a.k.a. the suspects, and this movie gives us Sean Connery and Ingrid Bergman to fill out the roster. Not too shabby.
The Hateful Eight (2015)
This was the movie that I couldn't get out of my head as the closest comp to Bad Times. It's a classic chamber drama, with a bunch of people snowed into a lodge together with guns. It also has no mystery, no detective, no heroes. The characters are just as odd and spectific. The Game of Thrones Effect definitely comes into play. And the narrative timeline definitely gets broken and shuffled around in the same way. So what sets Quentin Tarantino's version apart (aside from its ludicrous 3 hours and 7 minutes run time)? It's just peak Tarantino-ness. His characters are just more interesting, his suspense just more intense, the plot twists are more shocking, and his dialogue...nobody does dialogue like Tarantino. Nobody. It's hilarious and crude and masterfully crafted every single time.