Movie Review: Bad Times at The El Royale

Author’s Note: I’ve been holding off on writing movie reviews because so much of what I read, watch or otherwise consume is stuff on film.  What’s more, I was waiting for a movie to come along that I really felt worth reviewing, especially if I felt I could add to the conversation.  And then I saw Bad Times at The El Royale. So, let’s do this.

The last film to be both written and directed by Drew Goddard was Cabin in the WoodsCabin was a deconstruction of classic slasher movie troupes that managed to walk a fine line between being a good horror movie while also making a unique commentary on the genre.  It was Goddard’s directorial debut and gained a significant boost in esteem for the time from Goddard’s co-writer, Joss Whedon.  Since Cabin in the Woods, Goddard has adapted Andy Weir’s The Martian for the big screen and been the show-runner for Marvel’s first Netflix show, DaredevilBad Times at the El Royale marks the first time that Goddard has returned to the director’s chair and once again, he’s bringing a script he wrote himself.  Given the resume he’s assembled and his previous effort as writer/director Goddard’s newest comes with a certain number of expectations.

If Cabin in the Woods treated one story like a puzzle box, slowly expanding and unraveling as it progresses, then Bad Times is the opposite.  Instead of one story, Bad Times at the El Royale is about at least six stories as they all converge on the titular hotel, a bi-state establishment straddling California and Nevada.  The year is 1969, the hotel has seen better days, the soundtrack is full of some golden oldies and nobody is who they appear to be.  The beginning is almost like the setup to a joke, as Jon Hamm’s character points out “a priest, a vacuum salesmen and a color girl walk into a bar.”  But as these stories clash into one another, new complications arise and the tension begins to mount.

First off, I’ll put the cards on the table and admit that I’m a sucker for this kind of story.  I love the music, I love the time period and I love the genre.  In my sophomore year of high school, I saw The Maltese Falcon in a short-lived film club and after that it was all over but the singing for me.  I’ve been a rabid fan of noir and neo-noir films for a long time so I was willing to give Bad Times my thumbs up on its look and feel alone.  But Goddard and his cast aren’t here for just okay, and on the whole the film delivers.  Given the film’s name, the El Royale has to serve as a character itself.  Exceptional set design and great cinematography from Seamus McGravey really sell the idea of the hotel.  The El Royale used to be one of the most popular and successful hotels in the area.  Dean Martin apparently wrote a song about it.  But the years have taken their toll and the El Royale has gone from Tahoe’s best kept secret to roadside kitsch in less than a decade.  If you’ve taken a cross-country trip, especially in the American Southwest, you’ve seen this place before, still being advertised alongside Holiday Inns and Motel Sixes.  But the faded glory of the El Royale is only the uppermost layer of the secretive establishment and as the story progresses, we’re treated to a completely different side of the El Royale.  Like the characters, nothing is as it seems on the border between California and Nevada.

The ensemble cast is at the top of their game.  Jeff Bridges, Jon Hamm and Dakota Johnson are the most recognizable names in the core cast and all three acquit themselves ably.  Bridges has confidently settled into his late in life niche as gruff-speaking, morally complex men.  Jon Hamm starts off playing a riff on his iconic Don Draper role but soon reveals layers to his performance that make for a very interesting character.  Lastly, Dakota Johnson continues to take on roles like she’s daring critics to only remember her turn in the Fifty Shades movies.  Johnson’s asked to play a more cagey, guarded character in Bad Times and she takes to the task with aplomb.   The real surprises though are the young or otherwise unknown actors asked to play alongside these more established names.  Cynthia Ervio is a revelation as struggling songstress Darlene Sweet.  Ervio is asked to serve as the film’s moral center and she more than holds her own among big hitters.  The movie even gives Ervio a chance to show off her background as a Broadway actress a few times with some a capella performances.  These scenes are shot and staged so well that they’re easily some of the film’s best moments.  Newcomers Lewis Pullman and Cailee Spaeny also get to shine as the hotel’s concierge and a waifish runaway, respectively.  Pullman in particular really sells what is arguably the most complex character in the cast.  But the show stopper is Chris Hemsworth as the mercurial and dangerous Billy Lee, though to say more would perhaps spoil too much.  I’m not sure if you’d call his performance “playing against type,” for Hemsworth but he’s clearly having a ball as the film’s undisputed villain.

While it’s nowhere near as overt as in Cabin, there are some serious thematic tones in Bad Times at the El Royale.  Like I said, there’s something like half a dozen stories at work in Bad Times and it takes a while for the movie to converge onto a single plot line.  The film even utilizes title cards in order to ease the transition between characters.  As such, the effect deliberately recalls watching an anthology film, full of stock characters from the 50’s and 60’s.  The hippy, the bumbling concierge, the furtive priest, the sleazy salesman and the put-upon woman of color are all archetypes.  But as the story progresses, we learn that these personas are masks the characters wear.  Slowly, these masks break down and the people behind them reveal hidden depths.  Maybe the blase hippy is the most dangerous person in the room.  Maybe the concierge has a reason to put on a bumbling affect.  These characters are all the protagonists of their own story but when those stories collide into one another, things go awry.  They may be the hero of their story but that makes them a threat to someone else.  This friction builds throughout the film’s first two acts until Hemsworth’s villain shows up and consumes the other narratives like a raging inferno.

Goddard’s previous film was about expanding the world of the horror movie in bizarre ways.  That same dedication to surreal world-building is still present in Bad Times at the El Royale but it’s muted, more subtle.  In that regard, fans of Goddard’s previous work might be disappointed.  The El Royale is still ultimately a place where secrets are uncovered, but the only things we learn about its overseers is a reference to “management,” and a PO Box in Pennsylvania.  Instead, this film’s deconstructionist efforts are focused on its characters.  The movie uses several motifs to that end: masks, mirrors and repetition (not to mention several well-timed needle drop music cues).  I could probably write a sizable essay about how the movie uses these motifs.  As just one example, every mirror in the movie is one-way and certain lines get the ironic repetition treatment.  Goddard isn’t trying to reinvent the wheel this time but he’s a smart enough screenwriter to weave into the script.  For instance, you’ll probably notice that the film has touched on almost every facet of 1960’s culture except the Vietnam War just in time to realize precisely why it held out until the third act to drop that particular shoe.  All of this is there to be found but it’s not so blatant that a casual film-goer will feel like they’re being lectured too.

Bad Times at the El Royale is not a perfect movie.  The editing is creative in a lot of places but it could’ve been just a little tighter.  Similarly, while I got a real kick out of the third act climax, the film features the sort of resolution that pedantic people will complain about on YouTube and Social Media for a while.  Lastly, while the film’s use of title cards starts out as clever, by the end they’ve definitely run their course and have arguably lost their meaning.  But I’ll admit that I’m stretching to find these particular criticism, which is in and of itself a seal of approval.  Above that though, Bad Times at the El Royale is probably the most interesting movie I’ve seen all year.  That’s not to say it’s been a bad year at the movies but I’m always happy to find a slightly smaller picture that really clicks with me.  Sure, it’s the kind of movie that’s so far up my alley it might as well be buying real estate but it also got me thinking and inspired me to write about it.  As far as I can tell, that might be the best compliment that you can pay to a movie.

Bad Times at the El Royale is in theaters now, from 20th Century Fox.

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