Bad Times at the El Royale, 2018.
Written and Directed by Drew Goddard.
Starring Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo, Dakota Johnson, Jon Hamm, Chris Hemsworth, Nick Offerman, Manny Jacinto, Cailee Spaeny, Xavier Dolan, Katharine Isabelle, Jim O’Heir, and Lewis Pullman.
Seven strangers, each with a secret to bury, meet at Lake Tahoe’s El Royale, a rundown hotel with a dark past. Over the course of one fateful night, everyone will have a last shot at redemption – before everything goes to hell.
I’d love to tell you all of you fine readers some intriguing and notable details regarding the various pulpy personalities that make up writer and director Drew Goddard’s (making his sophomore feature here six years too long following the incredible deconstruction of the horror genre The Cabin in the Woods, but also putting his time as a writer on the hit TV series Lost to good use) Bad Times at the El Royale, but what’s the point? No one is who they say they are. Now, that doesn’t mean every person is looking to betray one another or is terrible in some way, as sometimes the facts being hidden are for understandable reasons. Other times, yes, they are just immoral and teetering between sane and insane, moral and corrupt, right and wrong, etc. Thankfully, one of the long night’s visitors is a priest.
Or is he?
Much like his directorial debut, Drew Goddard is doing his damnedest to subvert audience expectations. Think you have who lives and dies figured out based on all-star cast popularity? Think again. Drew Goddard doesn’t give a shit. Even during a scene which comes down to one of two people getting shot, the filmmaker goes with the bold and unpredictable choice. And that’s not even the last major twist in the movie. The misdirections and subversions don’t just come down to life and death altercation scenes but also reasoning behind actions, in turn, adding more complexity to these people. Except Chris Hemsworth’s Manson reminiscent cult leader Billy Lee, who is just madly off his rocker and seems to spend life with his abs exposed just to lure in followers, especially mentally unstable/abused young women. Still, for such a deranged human being his presence is magnetic and alluring, almost as if we are being dared to find him likable. He’s not, but Chris Hemsworth gets one hell of a scenery-chewing role and makes the most of it, evoking the eccentricity of an actual cult leader.
Aside from crazy people packing up the joint, it is revealed in a prologue that a large sum of money never collected still exists underneath the floorboards of one of the motel rooms. Surprisingly, which of the seven individuals collected under the El Royale (a bi-state establishment residing between Nevada and California, marked with a red stripe up and down the lobby) is aware of the life-changing cash is made known rather early on, but that’s because, once again, there are far many other surprises in store. The El Royale itself has a long history similar to its inhabitants on this wicked night, now functioning as a rundown tourist attraction more than a resort any reasonable person would actually want to check in at for some shut-eye.
It doesn’t matter why they’re here, as the performances from all are showy and grand. Jeff Bridges puts in some of his best work in years, it’s a cathartic relief finally seeing Dakota Johnson once again handed a script worthy of her talent, Jon Hamm clearly has fun playing a vacuum salesman that is up to something suspicious (the first thing he does after entering his room is investigate every nearby object for bug devices to remove), and Lewis Pullman plays a wiry jack of all trades manager of the El Royale. All of these characters are more than meets the eye, but one of them is deceptively deeper, even more so than the rest. Flashbacks and 140+ minute running time and all, it’s easy to appreciate just how much Drew Goddard is interested in his own creations. I would not be surprised if a longer version exists with much more background material, which normally would drag a movie under the weight of its own scope, but in this instance, I would line up for such a thing without hesitation.
There is no beating around the bush that Goddard is influenced by Quentin Tarantino here; the reach of that influence likely is not limited to The Hateful Eight, as Bad Times at the El Royale also has titled chapters, is no stranger to flaring up with some gruesome violence, and enjoys indulging in dialogue moments between multiple arrangements of its characters. With that said, the handling of so many subplots and mildly different tones are occasionally unwieldy executed, as if the purpose of the film (there is unmistakable social commentary throughout) might slip out of his grasp entirely at any second. Fortunately, by the third act, the overall narrative feels reigned in, ultimately leaving the whole experience feeling like an accomplished effort.
When it comes down to it, there is also just more that needs to be known about these characters; one of the character backgrounds involves child sexual abuse but without much elaboration, as if it’s a plot point that can be just tossed in for the sake of it. Tony Award-winner Cynthia Erivo is granted ample time to belt out memorable tunes with her heavenly voice, but in some ways her character feels underwritten (there is only one flashback for her, which explains that her non-success as a musician wasn’t for a lack of ambition, but rather race and gender being especially backward in the 60s). What exactly is the purpose of Billy Lee’s gathering of lunatics? What is on the film reel (you’ll understand this reference when you see it, and it’s also something that feels like an homage to the mysterious briefcase in Pulp Fiction)?
In the interest of fairness, the answers aren’t totally necessary, as Bad Times at the El Royale packs enough genre thrills, unexpected bursts of death, the right amount of unsettling weirdness, foot-tapping decade appropriate jukebox selections, and moral dilemmas for all involved. If you’re going to ape Quentin Tarantino of all filmmakers you better make damn sure you do at least a halfway decent job; Drew Goddard manages to not sink under the pressure of such ambition, but does more than fine crafting his own warped tale of degenerates holed up in one location for the night surrounded only by each other and a bevy of secrets.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com