Bad Times at the El Royale (2018)
All Roads Lead Here
Six years after deconstructing the horror genre in 2012’s ingenious Cabin in the Woods, writer-director Drew Goddard is back with his long-awaited follow-up and second feature, Bad Times at the El Royale, a trashy Tarantino-styled crime thriller set within the confines of a single location, the El Royale. Situated on the border of Nevada and California (with a literal line running through its center), the aforementioned was once a glorious hotspot of the Lake Tahoe region, where celebrities and the like would gather during the ’40s and ’50s to enjoy its bustling casino, lavish bar, swanky bungalows and sizeable pool — even if drinking was only permitted on one side and gambling the other. The good times, however, have since come to an end, with the resort falling on hard times after losing its gaming license.
The movie opens with a wordless prologue set on a stormy night in 1958, where a criminal (played by Nick Offerman) buries a duffel bag beneath the floorboards of his hotel room before copping a bullet to the chest. The story then picks up ten years later, in 1969, when, en route to Reno, soul singer Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo) arrives at the semi-abandoned El Royale, bumping into a priest, Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges), in the parking lot. From there the pair enters the lobby, where they run into Southern vacuum-cleaner seller Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm), who’s waiting for a bellboy. Lo and behold, in shuffles a nervous twentysomething named Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman), who happens to be the bi-state establishment’s sole employee, working as the concierge, bartender, maintenance person, etc.
Already flustered by the sudden influx of unexpected guests, the poor kid gets even more rattled when a muscle car screeches out front, signaling the arrival of Dakota Johnson’s standoffish hippy Emily Summerspring. Slapping her money on the counter, Emily grabs a key and heads to her room, exiting the foyer as quickly as she arrived. With four mysterious guests staying overnight, and a few more still on the way, it’s only a matter of time until secrets are exposed and true motives come to light. Even this early on, it’s pretty obvious that appearances are deceiving and that nobody is who they claim to be, this fragile house of cards already showing signs of collapse.
Things get weird when Hamm’s smooth-talking salesman finds a two-way mirror in his room, then follows it to discover a hidden corridor that enables him to spy on all of the unsuspecting guests — people later refer to the El Royale as being ‘some kind of pervert hotel.’ It’s here that Goddard and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, Nocturnal Animals (2016), stage a superb single-take tracking shot reminiscent of Hitchcockian cinema, where Sullivan peers on the visitors as they go about their (suspicious) business, this sequence soundtracked by Tony-winning singer Cynthia Erivo, who performs an entrancing version of the The Isley Brothers’ classic hit ‘This Old Heart of Mine.’
From hereon in Bad Times at the El Royale becomes a series of nifty reveals that fill in specific blanks, kinda like a crime novel come to life, the narrative constantly backtracking and re-playing events to uncover the bigger picture, Goddard tinkering with time (via flashbacks) to explain why these enigmatic characters — each with a fractured sense of what’s right and wrong, looking to find redemption — ended up at the El Royale on this one fateful night. Either way, it’s never clear who’s going to live, die or make it through the night (yep, the film features moments of extreme ultra-violence). Moreover, Goddard isn’t afraid to withhold certain bits of information, keeping his cards close to his chest until he feels it’s absolutely necessary to lay them all out on the table.
The problem is, clocking in at a whopping 141-minutes, the story fails to justify its gargantuan runtime, struggling to go anywhere overly surprising — I guess you can say this one’s more about the journey rather than the destination. On this journey, Goddard reflects on the end of the American Dream, where fear and mistrust had begun to seep into the minds of free-spirited folk — this was a time where Nixon was in power, the US had just entered the Vietnam War, and Charles Manson and his devotees were running rampant. Additionally, Goddard also comments on power, and how those with authority can abuse it, his screenplay hinting at a bigger conspiracy (involving the hotel’s owners), even if it fails to offer any concrete answers on this subplot, which I found to be somewhat frustrating.
Bad Times at the El Royale also gives Goddard another chance to toy with his favorite motif, voyeurism, and what happens when we watch. You see, in Cabin in the Woods, Goddard surveyed the horror/ slasher genre, suggesting that viewing these types of movies helps us satisfy our inner lust for blood. In El Royale, however, he explores how observing dishonorable folk, who are trapped in crooked situations, can get us to look past the mask of our own morality.
On a technical level, Bad Times at the El Royale is visually sublime, DOP McGarvey capturing the neon-lit exteriors with his sleek widescreen lensing, which really fluoresce during several of the rain-drenched scenes. Production designer Martin Whist, Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb (2014), also does a wonderful job in bringing the titular establishment to life — a 10,000-square-foot set was constructed on a massive soundstage in Mammoth Studios, Burnaby, just outside of Vancouver — the architecture and copious tacky touches giving the building a cool noirish feel — the Wurlitzer in the back, for instance, is a nice little addition. Speaking of which, the atmospheric score by Michael Giacchino, War for the Planet of the Apes (2017), is to die for, so too is the soundtrack of golden oldies, the flick featuring a stack of Motown ditties and retro pop classics including the Four Tops’ excellent ‘Bernadette’ (one of my faves), Tommy Roe’s ‘Baby, I Love You,’ and Deep Purple’s ‘Hush.’
It’s also clear that Goddard is very fond of his key players, who (just like the structure they inhabit) are split down the center, the cast doing a tremendous job in breathing life into these complex characters. Cynthia Erivo, who’s sure to kick ass later this year in Widows, is the heart and soul of the movie as hapless backup singer Darlene Sweet, a once-optimistic woman who’s grown weary of working for pompous entitled men; look out for a cameo by Xavier Dolan, Tom at the Farm (2013), who portrays an arrogant music executive called Buddy Sunday. Jeff Bridges, Hell or High Water (2016), is equally as great as the gruff Father Flynn, an Irish priest with a fraying memory, the interactions between Bridges and Erivo arguably some of the film’s finest moments.
Dakota Johnson, whose post Fifty Shades of Grey (2015) career choices have been very interesting, is the best she’s ever been as rifle-wielding femme fatale Emily Summerspring, the 29-year-old star sizzling the screen with her tight denim jeans and sleeveless vest, while Cailee Spaeny, Pacific Rim: Uprising (2018), who sports some killer bangs, leaves an impression as Emily’s brainwashed younger sister Ruth. Flaunting his chiseled abs, Chris Hemsworth, Thor: Ragnarok (2017), delivers the film’s strangest performance as a seductive Jim Morrison-type cult leader named Billy Lee, the Aussie actor playing against type, his bare-chested baddie shimmying into the third act to cause all sorts of grief for the hotel guests. Last but not least, Bill Pullman’s son Lewis, The Strangers: Prey at Night (2018), excels as El Royale’s wimpy all-purpose manager Miles, who winds up proving that one should never judge a book by its cover.
While certainly not for everyone, chiefly those who find slow burns to be somewhat sluggish, Bad Times at the El Royale is another winner from cult filmmaker Goddard, who has fun with the Tarantino template, using it to craft a suspenseful, page-turning thriller that harkens back to the pulpy pictures of old. And look, while it’s far from perfect (the film could have defiantly done with a bit of fine tuning), this is one shady dive that’s worth checking into. Irrespective of what its kitschy title suggests, I had a pretty good time at the El Royale.
3.5 / 5 – Great
Reviewed by Mr. Movie