Upon seeing this movie, I was reminded of the time I wrote a book report in the 6th grade about Orwell's Animal Farm. After I blandly described the events and cast of characters to my classmates, Mrs. Camp knelt discretely at my desk and asked, "you know that book is about communism, right?”
I did not. Similarly, it is easy to miss the overarching message of Bad Times at the El Royale (and not just for 6th graders).
There are several story lines housed in the vacancies of the El Royal-- a formerly prestigious Lake Tahoe hotel whose claim to fame is that it is split by the border of California and Nevada. The division of the hotel is dramatized by a conspicuous red line demarcating the California and Nevada sides. The hotel itself is a character in the film with history, secrets, and contradictions of its own.
Set circa late 1960's, we are introduced to the characters as glaring stereotypes. I rolled my eyes in skepticism, but the esteemed cast and remarkable scenery kept me from cutting it short, and I was rewarded in spades.
No spoilers-- there are several intriguing sub-plots in which we see vast dissonance in the lives of each character. Each possesses ambiguity and paradox of opposites, emphasized by the rifting values in the middle of the 20th century. One of the storylines involves J Edgar Hoover's powerful hold as the director of the FBI for 48 years-- his public facade was one of moral rectitude, but time has revealed that he used blackmail and fraud to secure his notorious reign. Hoover also had a mysterious private life that contrasted his righteous indignation-- but no matter how corrupt or hypocritical anyone might be, each of us is entitled to peaceful fulfillment of our human needs, even amongst all our contradictions.
But I digress. The guests of the El Royale each takes a room on the Nevada side (incidentally, Nevada has been a crucial swing state in recent elections) and begin to reveal their many secrets. We are kept on the edge of our seats as violence and suspense punctuate the absurd, fascinating mingling of circumstances and relationships between the characters.
In completely believable fashion, each character represents juxtapositions including:
arrogant blowhard/ stealthy expert
This film was stunning to look at, well executed, and extremely entertaining-- but I think there is a message that Goddard conveys about the present state of politics and relationships in America. And in ourselves. As human beings, each of us possesses the potential for great harm and suffering in equal amounts generosity and joy. Fear, regret, shame, greed, and insecurity can lead to devastating destruction of lives, but honesty, acceptance, communication, and even protest can foster optimism, growth, and peace. Archetypes are easy targets— as Americans, we often see each other as reds vs blues and we dig our heels in against one another because it is easier to see Others as bad guy enemies. But the truth is, each of us is multifaceted, and most of us are just doing the best we can to provide a sustainable standard of living for ourselves and our loved ones.
Bad Times at the El Royale shatters archetypes as Goddard reveals the complexity and simplicity of our layers— strangely, we are all the same in that we are different.
So, yeah. This one’s in my library. Recommended.