A film review by Craig J. Koban October 27, 2018

BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE jjj

2018, PG-13, 140 mins.

 

Jeff Bridges as Father Daniel Flynn  /  Cynthia Erivo as Darlene Sweet  /  Chris Hemsworth as Billy Lee  /  Dakota Johnson as Emily Summerspring  /  Jon Hamm as Laramie Seymour Sullivan  /  Cailee Spaeny as Ruth Summerspring

Written and directed by Drew Goddard
 

 

 

It's amazing to consider that nearly twenty five years after its release that generation after generation of filmmaker are repeatedly still trying to recapture Quentin Tarantino's PULP FICTION lighting in a bottle style.  

Directors have endeavored - with intermittent levels of success over the years - to marry Tarantino's brand of ultra violence, swiftly assured and punchy dialogue exchanges, lurid crime elements, and likeably amoral crooks, and BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE is certainly no exception.  It's from writer/director Drew Goddard, a talented director in his own right (THE CABIN IN THE WOODS) as well as a respected and clever screenwriter (THE MARTIAN and CLOVERFIELD).  His newest film - his first in six years - has Tarantino's DNA all over it, which may have some turning away considering that the imitation genre has been sucked relatively dry.  Yet, Goddard makes his film uniquely his own in the process and it contains a terrific and intriguing setup, a wonderful ensemble cast, and gorgeous period production values.  It woefully runs out of steam in its later stages, but the film overall is an undeniable attention grabber.

The basic plot/premise is deceptively simple, yet contains multiple twists and turns and traverses back and forth within its own timeline to the point of making some viewers feel like they require a roadmap to make sense of it all.  That's more of a compliment than criticism, seeing as it allows for a strong sense of forward momentum and a nagging uncertainty of what's to come next.  And the film's opening scene is a real humdinger.  Done in one beautifully realized long take, we see a trenchcoated and apparently bloodied and beaten man entering a motel room carrying duffle bags.  He then moves all of the room's furniture from one side to the other and proceeds to tear up the floor's carpets  He opens up the remaining wooden blanks underneath, where he deposits the bags.  He then puts the room completely back together again.  Thinking the coast is clear, he is greeted by another man coming to the door, who whips out a shotgun and blasts him dead.  The title card then reveals a "Ten Years Later" flashforward in time.  All in all, the opening of BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE is impressively mounted and easily got me hooked.

 

 

It's inferred - via some nifty TV news reports in the background of some scenes - that the setting is Nixon era America in the early 70s as we revisit the same hotel from the introductory sequence, the El Royale, which is revealed to by built and residing precisely on the border between Nevada and California.  Once an extremely popular destination for rich and famous celebrities, the hotel has fallen on hard business times and is in desperate need of renovations. The only employee apparently still working there is Mile Miller (Lewis Pullman), who's given a reprieve from his chronic boredom and loneliness with the appearance of four strangers at the same time: Father Flynn (Jeff Bridges); singer Darlene (Cynthia Erivo); traveling salesmen Seymour (Jon Hamm); and the tough talking hippie-esque Emily (Dakota Johnson).  All of these people come from diverse backgrounds, but they all share the commonality of wanting to hopefully have a night of peace and quiet in their respective rooms overnight.

It soon becomes clear that most of these people are definitely not what they appear to be.  Seymour most certainly has more motive to be at the hotel outside of it serving as a mere pit stop on his sales trip, whereas Flynn also is shown to perhaps not be an honorable man of the cloth.  Worse yet is when Emily drags in a bound and gagged women (Cailee Sapeny) into her room in what superficially looks like a kidnapping.  Then there's the discovery of a hidden hallway within the hotel that allows people access to two way mirrors to spy on guests (with one featuring a large camera in front of it).  As one dark and twisted revelation begins to mount on top of each other, the guests find themselves oddly bonding together when a manipulative cult leader, Billy Lee (the perpetually shirtless Chris Hemsworth) shows up to violently complicate matters even more, and with all of what remains of the hotel visitor's lives hanging in the balance.

BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE is a sumptuously made film through and through, thanks to Goddard and company's keen eye for set and production design, art direction, 70s era clothing styles, and, in particular, specific attention paid to making the hotel feel like a secondary character all on its own.  The film also has a bright, yet ominous color palette, thanks to cinematographer Seamus McGarvey's exquisite shot compositions.  On a pure technical level (in terms of whisking us immediately back to the past), Goddard's film is an outstanding achievement.  The screenplay's juicy and darkly compelling detours throughout also displays, yes, a Tarantino-like infusion of black humor and shocking bloodshed that also revels in throwing multiple unexpected curveball at audiences over and over again.  The core premise of a group of mysterious and duplicitous minded strangers coming together during one fateful night at a run down hotel, only then to have their lives turned upside down is the stuff of perverse crime pulp novels, and Goddard, for the most part, seems to be successfully aiming for and harnessing such an anarchist tone.

Goddard is also a solid actors director as well and generates some wonderful turns from his exemplary cast.  Jon Hamm is no stranger to playing cool cats of the past (see MAD MEN) and here he proves yet again why he's arguably one of the best leading men in Hollywood that Hollywood doesn't utilize more to his fullest.  Jeff Bridges seems to he having a blast slowly revealing layer upon layer of secrets to his priest that just may not be as devout to God as he would otherwise appear.  Hemsworth - despite appearing really late in the proceedings - delivers an understated, yet campy turn as his insane cult leader that uses the hotel's casino tables as an interrogation tool in one of the film's best scenes.  The real standout in the film is British stage star Cynthia Erivo (previously a Tony winner) and Goddard never wastes any opportunity to have this vocal powerhouse belt out versions of iconic 60s tunes whenever required.  Beyond her tremendous singing talents, Erivo also brings a thankless level of gritty charisma and inner strength to her character despite the madness that surrounds her.

Unfortunately, I couldn't help but think all while watching BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE that there was a truly great Tarantino knock-off here with some head scratching creative choices that nearly capsizes everything.  Like, for example, the film's preposterously bloated and self indulgent running time of 141 minutes, which it never once feels like it requires, nor earns.  The initial storytelling urgency and nail biting tension that Goddard engineers in the opening sections of the film are somewhat undone by his elephantine pacing later, during which time the screenplay tries to shake things up, introduce new unrelated elements, and attempt - albeit unsuccessfully - to throw viewers off and keep them in a state of pressured uncertainty.  Perhaps the largest issue related to this is that it takes for...bloody...ever for BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE to build towards a satisfying third act; Goddard never seems to known how to just pull all of these troubled souls together and simply end his film.  And by the time the plot reaches it brutally protracted finale the manner Goddard brings everything to some semblance of closure is distractingly a letdown.

I wished that this film had a better payoff.  I wished that it was about twenty minutes shorter.  And I also wished that it gave these shadowy individuals more to do than have obligatory standoffs that should have been inspired and intense instead of inspiring me to check my watch with too much frequency.  Yet, I'm going to reluctantly give BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE a passing grade, seeing as Goddard's sense of evocative style, the film's look and tone, as well as its deeply committed and diverse cast makes it worthy of theatrical consumption.  And Goddard seems to be relishing at tapping into this genre, even though he lacks some editorial discipline at times.  His film is not of the upper "Royale with cheese" echelon of memorable PULP FICTION inspired crime noirs, but it nevertheless remains "a tasty burger" in just the right dosages. 

  H O M E