'Bad Times at the El Royale' and How to Deconstruct a Genre
[This story contains spoilers from Drew Goddard's filmography, including Cabin in the Woods and Bad Times at the El Royale.]
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The Cabin in the Woods, from 2012, which Goddard directed and co-wrote with Joss Whedon, plays on the archetypes of the horror genre, quite literally. A mid-film revelation shows that behind the scenes, Sitterson (Richard Jenkins) and Hadley (Bradley Whitford) are manipulating a group of young people and constructing a real-life horror scenario for mysterious reasons. On top of being a commentary on surveillance, the movie puts the two men in the role of filmmakers, particularly those enforcing genre tropes apathetically and, in some cases, enthusiastically.
Though Cabin in the Woods was his directorial debut, deconstruction and self-reflexivity were not new for Goddard. In fact, when pulling back to look at his entire career, it becomes clear that those qualities play a significant role throughout, whether in genre, character, or his storytelling in general.
After serving as a TV writer under creators who would later become two of Hollywood’s most prominent geek auteurs, Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and J.J. Abrams (Lost), Goddard made his film screenwriting debut with 2008's Cloverfield. While the film is both a kaiju picture and a found-footage drama, the distinct combination and resulting perspective that Goddard writes into his story shatters the restrictions that those genres usually have, specifically through the chaos shown to the audience through the film's diegetic camera — the camcorder the characters wield to record the action.
Within minutes, the imagery calls to mind 9/11. A tower is struck and utter chaos ensues as people fill the streets, only to be forced back by massive smoke from the debris — all seen suddenly and shakily, much like some of the real footage from that horrible day. A kaiju film can lack human perspective, while a found-footage film can lack reason or thematic heft. But Goddard and director Matt Reeves use self-reflexivity to deconstruct both and make Cloverfield a haunting experience.
Ridley Scott's The Martian (2015) earned Goddard a adapted screenplay Oscar nomination and also leverages a diegetic camera through which Matt Damon's Mark Watney records his days stranded on Mars. The film is more textually interesting than it first appears, precisely because of the camera. It’s easy to assume that Watney will be saved, but that’s not the mindset of Watney himself. Death is a crack in the helmet or a burst in the hab away, and if that doesn’t happen, then, as Watney says, he’ll likely starve.
Thus, the act of recording himself becomes a coping mechanism. Plenty of Watney’s wit transfers from novel to film, but it’s when he chooses to record and what he doesn’t say on camera that successfully adapts the character’s fears. Watney addresses the audience because he needs there to be one for him to survive.
With this history, it’s not surprising that Goddard is involved in NBC’s The Good Place as an executive producer and occasional director. The show’s premise — four stereotypically bad people stuck in a world they don’t control — offers much for both character and storytelling deconstruction. And as The Good Place questions the system of control around the characters and investigates whether these four people can be good, bringing nuance that both informs and breaks down the tropes they seemed to inhabit, it fits right alongside how Goddard seems to approach storytelling.
And that approach is not slowing down. While not his most striking piece of social commentary, Bad Times at the El Royale is perhaps Goddard’s most controlled and fruitful piece of deconstruction. The film starts in a dull, plain hotel room. A man (Nick Offerman) enters and proceeds to push the furniture aside, lift the carpet, remove the floorboards and store a bag beneath before putting everything back together again.
It’s quite literally deconstruction, Goddard’s thesis up front and immediate: What looks plain and ordinary hides something beneath. The same proves to be true for the many characters, and the film tackles how muddy perspective can be, constantly posing the question of what exactly it is that the characters are hiding. Is it something scandalous and criminal? Is it some painful memory? Is it both? Can they be believed? It all sounds very Tarantino-esque, and it is, but where Tarantino delightfully indulges in archetypes to take them to an exciting level, Goddard indulges in them to then upend them.
The film’s cinematography, by Seamus McGarvey, is quite up front as well, not afraid to design plenty of clear visual metaphors, to leverage mirrors throughout or to push in close for emotional truth. And as the story slowly builds, the film’s thematic interests rise to the surface, subverting even Goddard’s previous work. Instead of looking just at government surveillance, Bad Times at the El Royale investigates how religion surveils, both externally and internally.
With that, the film becomes as much about the truth that characters tell one another as it is about the truth that characters tell themselves. In a development for Goddard, some of the film’s most powerful “twists” aren’t twists at all but simply confirmations of what has been true all along. And that allows the film to rely on a lie for its most gripping moment, a lie that rewards another’s truth.
In the face of manipulative storytelling, Goddard challenges and deconstructs storytelling as a part of his own, elevating his work to where it couldn’t have gone otherwise or highlighting the worst of the manipulation. Of course, all storytelling is manipulative, even the self-reflexive and deconstructive type. But it just might be a bit more fun, a bit more stimulating, and, in Goddard’s case, never cheap.
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