There is much to be said for watching a film that revels in tense unpredictability. Far too often movies fall into the realm of the foreseeable. You know how it will end from the moment it begins [or a little longer into the film, but not by much]. Thankfully, Bad Times at the El Royale is spun on capricious behaviour. At every turn there is a reveal; a moment or a look, that teases out any sense of true stability. The symptoms for such volatility perhaps lie with the director, writer and producer of the picture, Drew Goddard. The man behind Cabin in the Woods, and writer of films such as Cloverfield and World War Z, Goddard knows how to construct suspense and secrecy. When it comes to Bad Times at the El Royale though, he goes beyond ‘horror’. Flexing
himself across genres, the movie fluctuates between noir and pulp – old school mixed with flecks of urban. The opening is noir personified. A hotel room, and unknown man [later to be revealed as Nick Offerman], a hidden bag of money and a subsequent death.
From there we are introduced to the main players. Jon Hamm as a southern salesman, Jeff Bridges as the priest Father Flynn, Dakota Johnson as Emily [although when she first checks in she signs the book as ‘Fuck You’] and then there’s Cynthia Erivo, a struggling soul singer named Darlene. Erivo, despite being a newcomer to the movie scene [she’s made a name for herself on Broadway] is nothing short of spectacular. Without her, the film would fall flat, of that I am sure. Chris Hemsworth turns up in the third act as cult leader [see Charles Manson] Billy Lee, then there’s Emily’s younger sister Rose, played by Cailee Spaeny, and Lewis Pullman as Miles Miller, the sole employee left at the El Royale. It’s a rife setup for a bloody sort of sitcom – after all, you only ever leave the hotel in flashbacks.
Set in the backdrop of late 60s America, in a hotel that sits on both the California and Nevada border, you get the sense that whatever is going to happen, unpredictability abound, its unlikely to be good. As Miles tells Father Flynn, ‘this is no place for a priest’. The summer[s] of love are over, Nixon is in office, and the Vietnam war is in full swing.
We’re about to partake in a voyeuristic thriller, manned with skill by Goddard. The characters, and indeed the plot, are spinning on a Vegas roulette wheel. I always try to avoid giving spoilers in reviews – especially when it comes to as such as this, so I won’t give away the big reveals. But know this, the El Royale is a hotel where you cannot hide – the rooms are not a sanctuary, and the bad things you do will be noted. By who? – well, I’d prefer not to say.
And this is where the movie excels. The characters – and their lives, shown in
flashbacks, are richly detailed, and, whilst it may sound desultory to note, interesting. I wanted to know why they were at the El Royale, and Goddard doesn’t disappoint. The direction is tight too, and the use of sound, in both the soundtrack and diegetic, is a joy. Bringing her voice to the picture, Erivo has many a moment to shine – the scene where she single-handedly takes on The Isley Brothers ‘This Old Heart of Mine’ as Jon Hamm watches [and listens] is nothing like I’ve ever seen before. I could’ve cried, had the scene not been hinged on a deep note of terror.
But for all its merits Bad Times at the El Royale is not without its downfalls. The script is overly stuffed and cooked for far too long – by the time Chris Hemsworth rocks up shirtless and gyrating to Deep Purple some of the pacing is lost – terror suspended. And whilst I said earlier that the film is unpredictable [which it is], Hemsworth’s appearance marks a moment of uniformity – as Darlene tells him ‘I’m tired, and bored, of men like you’. This is not the fault of the actor; the writing has run out of steam. The climax, in the end, left me wanting a little more too.
Overall though, Goddard’s picture is a pleasure to watch. He has created something special, and the performances by the cast, Erivo and Bridges in particular, elevate the film to another level. [The scenes they share together perhaps the best in the entire 140-minute run time.] Visually enchanting, and, for the most part, alluring, Bad Times at the El Royale serves neo-noir in delightful droves. A worthy watch for any cinephile with a penchant for glamourous but deadly suspense.
Review by Emily Harrison
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