BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE

Actors. What would we do without them? If we didn’t have vain people wanting to put themselves in front of the camera for our amusement, then we wouldn’t have film and television. However, their job is to act. With some exceptions, they’re not there to write, direct, edit, or anything else. If they do a good job and everybody else fails, then usually the film ends up not being too good. With the right concoction of excellent actors and every other element, though, then you’re usually in the clear.

Set in 1969, the El Royale is a swanky casino hotel located right on the California-Nevada border. Due to them losing the gambling license, the hotel is quite dead and is run by Miles (Lewis Pullman), the establishment’s sole employee. One day, four strangers arrive to stay the night: Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo), a struggling soul singer; Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges), a priest; Laramie Sullivan (Jon Hamm), a vacuum salesman; and Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson), a hippie. There’s something odd about the hotel and these people, however. Something, or someone, is not exactly as they seem. Looks like it’s gonna be some Bad Times at the El Royale.

Mystery thrillers can be a lot of fun, especially when they’re done with a lot of style to add some entertainment and excitement to the intrigue. Writer/director Drew Goddard did that here, clearly a huge fan of Quentin Tarantino and taking a few pages out of his book. I kept thinking of The Hateful Eight throughout, which had a similar premise of suspicious strangers cooped up in one place together. The narrative device used to tell the story was also very Tarantino-esque. The story is mostly divided up into “Rooms”, where “Room 1” will show one particular character’s side of the story. Then we’ll go to “Room 4”, where we get that character’s perspective during the same time. It was a fun way to tell the story, with certain bits of information being hinted at and then revealed later from a different point of view. This sometimes didn’t work, as it felt like the passage of time felt was too quick in some scenes, making it inconsistent. For the most part, though, it was the perfect device to tell this kind of story, although it’s shame that the eventual payoff felt very unsatisfactory. 

A majority of the film takes place in the hotel, with some occasional flashback scenes to fill in the narrative. A lot of the scenes are very long, consisting mostly of characters talking to each other, or observing others in silence. Goddard does do a great job at pacing them, though. While a scene may go on for 20 minutes, there’s a nice flow to them where they build up to something, pay it off, and then start building up to the next development. Besides the final scene, Goddard kept the suspense and mystery tight, giving you anxiety about what you may find out next. It also helps that film looks great, with wonderful cinematography, production design, and costumes that perfectly evoke the late 60’s. There’s some fantastic use of color, especially in the rainy outdoor scenes where the red neon sign illuminates the parking lot. Everything about it from the tone to the visuals had a very classical Hollywood feel.

This is certainly an actor’s movie, where the film’s biggest strength lies in its fantastic cast. Aside from Chris Hemsworth and his inconsistent southern accent, every star is perfectly cast and Goddard utilizes all of their best abilities. Jeff Bridges is one of my favorite actors and he gives a very layered, genuine performance here of an old man trying to take care of unfinished business with not a whole lot of time left. The other standouts are Cynthia Erivo and Lewis Pullman (son of the legendary Bill Pullman). Erivo is the main character and practically has to carry the film, which she does an admirable job, even with scenes where she just sits there and sings. There’s a passion in her voice that you just can just feel, which gives her character even more depth. Pullman gets an excellent emotional scene at the end, which really ties the whole film together. Since every character has their own secrets that gets revealed as the runtime goes on, it allowed the actors to show a lot of their range. While some actors aren’t prevalent as others throughout, they all feel clearly defined and don’t feel wasted in any way.

Whenever a filmmaker is compared to Quentin Tarantino, it’s usually a detriment, as somebody who apes his style, but completely misses the point. Bad Times at the El Royale is one of the few times where “Tarantino-lite” is actually a positive. While the eventual payoff sort of fell flat, the stylish look, outstanding performances, and overall suspenseful mystery with its winding plot kept me enthralled. Everyone in that hotel didn’t have a good time, but I certainly did.

8.5/10

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