‘Bad’ is one of those terms that gets thrown around far too loosely, like ‘genius’ and maybe its time for us to stop, consider the context, and reclaim/redefine it, so that we all understand what we mean when we use it.
There are people who do bad things, bad people, and bad movies. I think that sums up this week at the box office. Let me explain.
I might be splitting hairs here, but in The Sisters Brothers, the new film from writer-director Jacques Audiard, Eli Sisters (John C. Reilly) is an assassin who happens to be very good at what he does. He’s a fast gun, accurate, and for most of his life, it seems, has lived by the code of shooting first and rarely, if ever, taking the time to ask any questions about what he’s done. His primary concern, outside employing his narrow skill set, has been watching the back of his brother and partner-in-crime Charlie Sisters (Joaquin Phoenix), a similarly talented shooter with no guard on his trigger, his mouth, or his conscience. There’s a pure hedonistic sensibility in Charlie that makes doing bad (or more accurately being bad) a pleasurable pursuit. You might call Charlie a savant when it comes to being bad.
The focus, for this conversation though, centers on Eli because as the older brother, over the course of their latest assignment, he develops a nasty – and potentially dangerous – habit. He starts to question why he’s doing the things he does. We’ve seen this before, think Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction) who, after experiencing a “miracle” in a heated moment, decides to give up the life and just walk the Earth ‘like Caine in Kung Fu,’ and as in that case, its his partner who attempts to talk him out of these crazy thoughts.
‘We’re bad men,’ Charlie and Pulp Fiction‘s Vincent Vega (John Travolta) seem to say, ‘we’re born this way, so why fight it?’
But that’s not exactly the strongest philosophical argument to present in this debate, especially in the face of men who, indeed, are wrestling with the demons that have held sway over their hearts, minds, and souls for so long. Being bad is a choice, a state of mind, one that Eli comes to believe might no longer have such a tight grip on him. Maybe he’s just a man who could choose another path?
The journey to this discovery is darkly comic, and more than a tad bit surprising, since it comes from Audiard, the French filmmaker who gave us A Prophet, Dheepan, and Rust and Bone. These narratives also featured characters struggling with the consequences of the bad deeds they committed along the way, but in his English language debut, Audiard injects a sly humor that dances close to a familiar broadness. The bickering camaraderie between the Sisters brothers feels like the buddy dynamic we normally get in action movies, but if you listen carefully, it is rooted in hurt feelings and sibling rivalries.
This is the kind of film that plays like gangbusters at a film festival. I caught it during a packed general audience screening at TIFF, full of folks eager to succumb to the warm embrace of an international filmmaker delving into an American genre that we have largely turned our backs on. We see nothing but the myths and epic landscapes of the West and the seeds of our violent history on those expansive plains drifting by, but Audiard lacks that historic/cultural perspective, so he can be entertained by the narrative beats and an understanding that the “big bad” of these tales – like Gene Hackman in Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven (and to a lesser extent, his replayed iteration in Sam Raimi’s The Quick and the Dead) – are little more than engines propelling the protagonists towards their reckonings.
The notion of propulsion partly fuels expectations for the second directorial feature from Drew Goddard. His first film, as a writer-director was The Cabin in the Woods, a seemingly by-the-numbers horror movie about a group of college friends heading off for a weekend in…a cabin in the woods that morphs into an apocalyptic game with mythic stakes.
No one knew what was going on, at the time of the film’s release, especially with the casting of Chris Hemsworth as one of the horny fun and thrill seeking participants, since he was in-between appearances as the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s God of Thunder – having soloed in Kenneth Branagh’s Thor the year prior with The Avengers fast approaching (literally a month after the release of The Cabin in the Woods.
There was a feverishly manic meta-deconstruction vibe to the movie that made it feel, in its middle and ending sections, like it’s frames was constantly on the verge of breaking apart. Imagine a rollercoaster ride where the car you’re in races down one of those long and winding curves and the tracks disintegrate, leaving you in a rickety shell hurtling towards oblivion.
That sense of barreling into the unknown is missing from Goddard’s latest, Bad Times at the El Royale, which in and of itself, shouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing. He’s not playing around with horror conventions this time; instead Goddard wants to muck around with film noir and mysteries. The film’s setup is instantly recognizable.
What happens when you bring a disparate collection of characters together in an unfamiliar setting and let them bounce off one another’s secrets and lies?
With a cast featuring the likes of Jeff Bridges, Jon Hamm, Dakota Johnson, intriguing star-in-the-making Cynthia Erivo (who has a solid double feature pairing in the works between this outing and the new Steve McQueen film Widows), and once again Hemsworth, there’s certainly a load of promise, right?
Unfortunately, El Royale takes its sweet time introducing its characters and even the setting – a past it’s prime trendy gimmick of a hotel that straddles the state line between California and Nevada – with a fractured time line that dreams of achieving the unfettered frenzy of Pulp Fiction. Like the long parade of movies back in the day that sought valiantly to mimic the pulp aesthetic of that now-classic, El Royale turns into a limp and quite American cheesy version of that gourmet treat.
Attempting to replace the mythic horror tropes utilized so well in Cabin in the Woods with more traditional Christian redemption elements, Goddard fails to breath new life into the gathering of types he’s populated the frames with, which means the heavy lifting falls on the shoulders of his cast. Bridges, as always, finds new shadings for his aging man of the cloth who obviously is anything but a man of God, and Erivo instills her striving singer with the kind of backbone Goddard, the writer, probably couldn’t even imagine as he was banging away at his computer. Together, these two can’t save a bad movie, but they definitely reduce the aftertaste that otherwise would have lingered for quite a while.
The Sisters Brothers [R] B
Bad Times at the El Royale [R] D