Most people, these days, when asked about Dakota Johnson can pretty readily identify her as Anastasia of the 50 SHADES franchise. As a result, they might have a few preconceived notions about her given the content and quality of those films (and their source material).

Thus far, I have found Johnson punches considerably above the quality of the films she has been in. As dire as the 50 SHADES movies have proven from a scripting and chemistry standpoint, many critics have recognized that Johnson found avenues for sly wit and silliness to give dimensions to the character.

As a result, I have been excited to see Johnson in a film or films worthier of her talent. With the twin October releases of BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE and SUSPIRIA, I have that opportunity, times two!

Dakota Johnson Spotlight Short Take: SUSPIRIA

Johnson: Stares
Dakota Johnson can see into your soul in SUSPIRIA. (Courtesy of Amazon Studios)

The original SUSPIRIA is one of those films. You know the ones. Certain people will exalt it to the high heavens because of its use of sound and color to unsettle and provoke. Or, the phantasmagoric world it wraps around the viewer, creating an absorbing alternate reality. Others will claim it is plotless nonsense that confuses pretentious for artistic endeavor. Given how many of Dario Argento’s films elicit this kind of reaction, this should come as little surprise.

Luca Guadagnino is not that kind of filmmaker. While no less ambitious in his pursuit of artistic realization, he tends to favor more Earthly tales and concerns. So how would he remake the divisive horror classic? And how would Dakota Johnson’s performance help or hinder those efforts?

Everything Is Political

Johnson: Shaggy Hair
Chloe Grace Moretz is having herself a bit of a day in SUSPIRIA. (Courtesy of Amazon Studios)

One noticeable difference in the new SUSPIRIA is that it engages with the politics of then and now. The original certainly took place in, roughly, modern times but there is little sense of that. With the exception of things like cars, Argento’s SUSPIRIA could take place in almost any time from, say, 1965 to the present.

In order to demonstrate how grounded in the era the story is, Guadagnino has characters mention and ponder political concerns. Patricia (Chloe Grace Moretz) feels herself being pulled in two different directions — deeper into the dance school on the one hand and towards a separatist group not unlike the Palestinian group responsible for the hijacking of Lufthansa Flight 181 on the other.

Other political anxieties are simply name-checked. For instance, at one point, Dr. Josef Klemperer (“newcomer” Lutz Ebersdorf) finds himself accosted by dancers for “not believing women.”

Except Perhaps It Is Not

Johnson: Swinton
Tilda Swinton is feeling a little green around the gills in a scene from SUSPIRIA. (Courtesy of Amazon Films)

Unfortunately, the politics frequently seem to do little more than exist to be referenced. The Palestinian separatists ultimately did nothing but verify the year the movie mostly unfolds during. The #MeToo declaration pops up for just that moment described above and then seems contradictorily dashed by the film’s ending.

I don’t want to be too spoiler-y here so I’ll try my best not to expose too much. Suffice to say, Dr. Klemperer receives a sort of mercy in the film’s last act. It is granted to him by a figure that has been revealed to possess incredible power and bloodlust. In doing so, the film suddenly seems to become about something else. Prior to this moment, it was about a dance school that is actually a front for an ancient coven of witches. After, it feels a lot more like it is about this doctor and his journey towards forgiveness and acceptance.

It is not without merit as it reveals layers to the coven itself. It complicates them into something more than just a vengeful dance troupe that occasionally devolves into an all-out massacre to declare a new leader. That’s interesting. However, to make a male character the hinge on which the movie achieves this depth feels…off. Undermining, I think.

But Maybe Politics Do Matter

Johnson: Mirror Mirror
Dakota Johnson reflects on dance in a scene from SUSPIRIA (Courtesy of Amazon Films)

That is not to say, however, that the movie does not present a sort of dark feminist rage. While its treatise on #MeToo does seem only namechecked, its perspective on men is unmistakable. With the exception of Ebersdorf — wink, wink — every man on screen is treated with scorn and “gifted” humiliation. We are watching from our real world where Christine Blasey Ford has continued to receive harassment even after Kavanaugh’s confirmation. Thus, there is an undeniable wish fulfillment in it.

Yes, here on Planet Earth, a woman who stood up to her accuser in front of a panel of almost entirely hostile men can be forced to move four times in the month or so since. On Planet Suspiria, though, a group of powerful women will gladly take a break from destroying each other to remind men exactly how trash they are.

While I don’t advocate for painting any one group with a broad brush, there is undeniable power and delight in that action. It provides a glimpse at their alternate world where men are so little a threat. All they require to be purged is brief offhand cruelty and are immediately forgotten.

That’s Not Blood, That’s Red

Johnson: Suspiria Witch
Something wicked this way crawls in a scene from SUSPIRIA. (Courtesy of Amazon Studios)

A facet of the first SUSPIRIA was the manner in which red soaked the whole thing. Even the blood — a tacky sort of red-magenta paint — flowed over and through the picture in volumes that certainly would not be possible in reality.

This new version is as interested in color but utilizes a far more extensive palette. When the blood flows, it is not “red,” it is far closer to looking like the real thing.

However, one should not take this to mean that this SUSPIRIA in less interested in violence. The film’s climax is an orgy of violence in which all manner of stabbing, decapitation, and more dance before your eyes in the name of fear and entertainment.

The truly gruesome, however, comes in a dance scene. A student, locked away in a mirrored rehearsal room, finds herself helplessly manipulated by unseen forces. The routine leaves her shattered in numerous horrifying ways, but still alive. Too often in SUSPIRIA violence is excessive yet routine, but that moment is one of terrifying poetry.

Johnson the Actress

Johnson: Defying Gravity
Dance has Dakota Johnson literally crawling the walls in SUSPIRIA. (Courtesy of Amazon Studios)

The newest student at this exclusive dance studio — which might actually be a coven of witches, shhhh — is Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson). An American raised in an exclusive religious community, she wishes to join the program that she saw as a child. Evidence suggests she has nowhere else to go after being cast out of her enclave, but it is unclear why. While she comes across as sweet and naïve, one can feel there’s more to her. For one, she has a preternatural talent for moving her body, despite how little dance training the character was allowed. Soon, we see it is much more than that.

Playing naïve is a tough act to nail. Too far in one direction and the character can read as a hayseed. Too far in the other and they become one of those magically wise characters — the types who REALLY get how the world works despite all evidence to the contrary. Johnson finds that medium road. Her Susie does seem to be over her head but in a comical manner. She may be overmatched, but she is not without tools of her own. Ending up at the dance academy was no accident, and she will not be scared off by random weirdness.

Given what happens to the character as she develops, Johnson’s performance had to walk another line. Her later developments could have seemed too obvious to matter or too obscure to feel like the same character. Instead, you can see the thread of the Susie we first meet and the Susie we are left with due to Johnson’s quiet but intense performance.

Johnson the Dancer

Johnson: Swinton
Tilda Swinton is feeling a little green around the gills in a scene from SUSPIRIA. (Courtesy of Amazon Films)

Physicality can be as important to a performance as diction or facial expression. In SUSPIRIA that is especially the case. Dancers need to sell that they belong to a collective of tremendous talent. Plus, they must portray that there is, often, something otherworldly about their performances.

This burden falls especially hard on Johnson. She has about three other notes she needs to hit. She has to dance as though she learned from watching other performances. As a result, her presentation takes on a tone of a kind of uncanny mimicry. Second, she needs to hint at the reality that, at times, her body is under someone or something else’s control. Finally, she needs to do all of this while still conveying that, even amongst all these talented women, she is a talent apart.

Johnson is not a dancer in real life. She underwent a fairly intense year of training for SUSPIRIA, but she did not come to the project with years of study beforehand. I would not have guessed that watching the film.

She has such command of her body, such an ability to shift modes, that I would have believed it if you told me that she was a dancer who transitioned to acting. However, I’m a novice. I’ve attended a fair amount of dance shows and went to a college with an incredible dance program. But my personal experience begins with ballroom and ends with being perhaps the best club dancer in New England.

However, I reached out to writer-director-actress and former dancer Megan Rosati who confirmed to me that Johnson’s work is, in fact, “stunning.”

Grand Coda Générale

Johnson: Dinner time
Dakota Johnson gets her stare on in a scene from SUSPIRIA. (Courtesy of Amazon Studios)

The new SUSPIRIA is unlikely to replace Argento’s SUSPIRIA in the pantheon of must-see horror films. However, there remains plenty to recommend it. Obviously, I think Dakota Johnson’s work is exemplary. Additionally, Tilda Swinton’s acting in multiple roles, which I did not explore too much above for fear of spoilers, demands notice. Even Chloe Grace Moretz in a relatively small role acquits herself nicely with a different kind of performance than I think I’ve seen her in before.

In the end, I cannot recommend SUSPIRIA wholeheartedly as a film. As a theatrical experience though, to appreciate the acting and Guadagnino’s command of the lens, it is very much worth at least one watch.

Dakota Johnson Spotlight Short Take: BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE

Johnson: The Hotel
The neons welcome you to BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE (Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox)

As with anyone connected with the tv series LOST, BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE writer-director Drew Goddard certainly has his intense fans and his angry detractors. I live more on the fan side of the equation, so I entered El ROYALE with high hopes. I don’t want to ruin this whole review for you, but as a hint, I remain firmly pro on the man and his work after this movie.

A Strange Sort of Place, Existing in Two Worlds

Johnson: The Counter
A real motley crew of Jon Hamm, Jeff Bridges, and Cynthia Erivo checks in for some BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE. (Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox)

The first thing we realize about the El Royale, the hotel where the majority of the action in this film will unfold, is that it is odd. Half in California and half in Nevada, as we are repeatedly told, the Royale is a former kitschy hot spot. Frequented by politicians and celebrities, it used to “swing,” in the words of Jon Hamm’s vacuum salesman Laramie Seymour Sullivan.

After losing its gambling license, though, it has fallen on hard times. From its heyday, it has become the sort of place where a distracted priest, a lounge singer, a hippy, and the aforementioned salesman might be the only lodgers. The kind of place where there is one employee, and he seems to disappear often without explanation and always returns disheveled. The kind of place where a vacuum salesman can charge the honeymoon suite on the corporate account without eyebrows raising at the cost.

The reality is that nothing and no one is what it seems. Every character who is staying at the El Royale on this subsequent night has an alter ego. Well, everyone except singer Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo) who actually seems to have ended up here because she refused to be dishonest. Sullivan’s blustery and invasive folksiness hides a very more observant and serious side. Father Daniel Flynn’s (Jeff Bridges) issues with focus are not his secret, his past life is. Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson) seems to be a disillusioned hippy, all bristling anger. However, she’s on a mission of salvation. Bellhop/bartender/maid/hotel manage Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman) is a mess weighed down by sin, but, well, those sins are a lot older and heavier than we can guess.

Subtext and Text Becomes Structure

Johnson: Miles Miller
Lewis Pullman is not nervous, no siree, in a scene from BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE. (Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox)

The characters’ and setting’s divided nature end up reflecting and foreshadowing the movie’s very structure. First, the movie unfolds in the “present day” of 1968 but frequently runs the clock back to show us the character’s double side. Like the hotel itself, each of the characters is mired in their past, in their double identities.

The second way the setting and characters reflect the film’s structure does not dawn on you, fittingly, until the halfway point. What was a mystery about a nearly abandoned hotel and its strange guests becomes a version of a home invasion story where our protagonists must survive cult leader/Charlie Manson analog Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth). The hushed tension of a group of people that very well may end up killing each other because they refuse to speak their secrets gives way to full-blown panic. Our protagonists find themselves at the mercy of the fakest character on-screen in Billy Lee, a monster entirely on edifice who lacks an original thought or, indeed, a trace of a soul.

Lots of Actors, But Are They Good?

Billy Lee gets wet
Chris Hemsworth would like you to meet his abs and, to a lesser extent, his pecs, in this scene from BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE. (Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox)

In response to the question above, the answer is yes, yes they are.

Hamm’s duality allows him to offer two performances that don’t touch much on nearly any of his earlier works. Given his goofball bigness when he does comedy and the dark desperation of his Don Draper, it was nice to see him be a bit more down-to-earth, sly, and straight arrow serious.

However, as the film progresses, Hamm occupies a less central role and the other actors get to flex their muscles.

Bridges is predictably strong. I don’t want to short shrift, but he’s Jeff Brides. He is predictably quality. I will say that I enjoyed the “journey” of his character the most. He definitely finds the most avenues and pockets in his priest to explore and elucidate.

Hemsworth makes a good villain. He oozes easy corrupt charm from the moment we meet him. Even when he’s friendly, he makes your skin crawl. The real strength of his work as Billy Lee, though, comes from the way he reveals what a fraud he is. A thin-skinned self-entitled narcissist, Lee gets dysregulated at the very notion of not being loved and listened to, and Hemsworth lets that bubble to the surface like a building a temper tantrum.

The Newbies

Johnson: Gun!
Cynthia Erivo would prefer not to use this in a scene from BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE. (Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox)

The real standouts for me, though, were Cynthia Erivo and Lewis Pullman.

Erivo, a Broadway veteran with a handful of strong television work under her belt, is excellent as Sweet. Erivo can obviously sing, and certainly part of the delight is watching her tear into mid and late 60s love songs. The revelation, though, was how she found the resignation and anger that comes from being a besieged black woman in the late 60s.

The way she casts withering glances at good ol’ boy Hamm’s Sullivan is a wonderful bit of pure facial acting. The real payoff of that comes from how the look evolves over the film’s running time. When it culminates in her withering critique of Billy Lee, Erivo makes you believe it. As noted by others, there is a catharsis in watching this black woman make it clear just how done with us she is.

Lewis Pullman has apparently been acting for about five years, but only in shorts until last year. He imbues Miller with this sort of empty patheticness. Whatever sins he can’t stop mentioning but won’t name have left him a shell, broken. He comes across like a wind-up toy at times, ready with the canned speech about the El Royale but otherwise useless, barely functional. When he comes to life after “accepting” his past during the film’s climax, he lets the audience first revel in his rebirth and then realize how horrifying he is, all with a frozen facial expression.

Finally, Johnson

Johnson: Peephole
Dakota Johnson checks the peephole during a moment in BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE (Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox)

SUSPIRIA’s Dakota Johnson is naïve, secretive, and otherworldly. EL ROYALE’s Johnson is mean as hell.

As spoiled in the trailer, Johnson has arrived at the hotel with some secret cargo. In her trunk, she has a woman, bound and gagged. While we find out quickly who her “victim” is, I won’t reveal it here. Suffice to say, there is more going on than an abduction.

When Johnson bursts through the lobby’s double doors, she is a flat snarl. Her gaze drips with disdain, her every movement off-putting. Her dismissiveness of even the loud, hard-to-ignore vacuum salesman marks her as the least pleasant member of this strange quintet. Then, when Johnson lets the visage melt safely in her hotel, you can see how draining it is for her character.

She is not who she appears, and she’s not very practiced at it either. However, she never lets you forget she can turn it on. She has steel in her spine, and while she might not like who she has to be right now, Johnson makes it clear Summerspring will do it without hesitation.

Johnson also imbues the character with a flinty dark humor streak. The way she mines laughs with just her eyes while talking to a tied-up Miller is wonderfully minimalistic. It gives the scene everything it needs without her uttering word.

Johnson: Smokin'
Dakota Johnson lights up back when smoking was still cool in a scene from BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE. (Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox)

Checking Out

EL ROYALE is a twisty, twisted delight. If you are the type to bemoan that every Hollywood movie is just a sequel, a remake, or an adaptation, you owe it to yourself and your complaining to throw some money at this one. Smart script, excellent actors, really great camerawork. What else do you need?

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