The El Royale is a motel that sits directly on the border of California and Nevada, split directly down the middle. Its motley brand of customers are similarly split down the middle: between right and wrong, good and bad. God and no God. And while it’s tough to decide who to side with, I can at least confirm that writer/director Drew Goddard sided right with BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE.
A storm is brewing over the El Royale, and four customers arrive separately for check-in. Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges) is passing through, along with motown singer Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo) who’s on her way to Reno for a gig. Vacuum cleaner salesman Laramie Sullivan (Jon Hamm) is taking a rest on the road, and a mysterious woman who won’t give her name (Dakota Johnson) takes room number 7. They’re signed into the logbook by the nervous clerk Miles (Lewis Pullman), who comes across incredibly nervous and is definitely hiding something.
The guests go their separate ways and settle into their assigned rooms, but as soon as they’re behind closed doors, their real motives become clear. No one is quite who they say they are, harboring secrets as dark as the storm clouds rolling in overhead. But none hold as dark a secret as the hotel itself…
Movies like BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE are why I go to the cinema. They only come along once in a while these days – character driven drama/thrillers – smart, funny and dark with dialogue that pops off the script’s pages. Broken up into chapters and with a penchant for subversions of temporally-linear storytelling, this is the kind of stuff Tarantino is best known for. However, I wouldn’t exactly call Goddard “Tarantino-light”. With this film he’s proven to be at least the “Pepsi” to Tarantino’s “Coca Cola”. And that’s certainly not a bad thing – I like Pepsi. Sometimes more than Coke.
Goddard chose wisely to shoot on film, and this feels like a movie’s movie, with consistently beautiful cinematography that brings the late 60’s/early 70’s setting to life. EL ROYALE shines in exquisitely framed and timed sequences where there is no dialogue – only on-screen actions synchronized with the rhythm of the music. The most recent similar example would be Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver, which also coincidentally starred Jon Hamm.
And speaking of Hamm, he and the rest of the ensemble cast do a wonderful job together. Bridges as the is-he-or-isn’t he priest is an obvious standout, and he’s given plenty to work with here and makes a meal of it. Chris Hemsworth is atypically creepy and reprehensible, and as it turns out, actually in the film for more than just that shot of him dancing shirtless in the trailer!
Broadway star Cynthia Erivo makes the transition screen as leading woman with a powerful voice, utilized well by Goddard in several extended musical sequences. She’s also given some heavy post-Weinstein dialogue that will send a chill down your spine. However, the biggest surprise was Lewis Pullman, giving an empathetic – and at the same time, humorous – performance as the truly damaged soul, Miles.
And while I had a better time with this film than almost anything else at the cineplexes this year – it’s not perfect. The lengthy dialogue segments are for the most part compelling, but there’s sag around the middle that could have been trimmed for greater effect. At 141 minutes, BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE could feel too long for some, but I’m torn on complaining about this, as the argument can be made that extra time allows deeper immersion in the characters and their predicament.
The ultimate outcome of the story may feel predictable – especially if you’ve seen enough Tarantino films – but the journey through the characters and the revelations that bring us there is what makes this a good visit to the cinema. It’s a truly handsome, mellifluous piece of work. Between The Cabin in the Woods and now this, Goddard – despite his obvious influences – has proved himself as a filmmaker to get excited about.
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