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Bad Times at the El Royale (2018)

DIRECTOR: Drew Goddard

CAST: Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo, Dakota Johnson, Jon Hamm, Lewis Pullman, Cailee Spaeny, Chris Hemsworth

REVIEW:

Bad Times at the El Royale has issues—sometimes overly self-indulgent in its own dark quirkiness and excessively Tarantino wannabe—but as an obvious homage to the kind of movie Quentin Tarantino might churn out, it serves up enough twists and turns combined with a dark sense of humor to keep the audience engaged and guessing through a slow burn pace.  Like Tarantino himself, it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but for those who enjoy this kind of movie, it’s an enjoyably dark and twisty ride.

The once-flourishing, now virtually defunct El Royale, straddling the Nevada/California border (the red border line literally bisects the hotel in half, giving guests the option of, depending which room they pick, staying in either Nevada or California) becomes the focal point due to being descended upon by an ensemble of shady characters with their own secretive agendas, some of which are revealed sooner or later than others.  It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to quickly harbor doubts that jovial priest Father Flynn (Jeff Bridges) and slick-talking vacuum cleaner salesman Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm) might not be what they present themselves as.  Then there’s the mysterious and tight-lipped Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson) hauling a bound and gagged teenager (Cailee Spaeny) out of her car.  And the oddball concierge/bartender/housekeeper Miles (Lewis Pullman), seemingly the hotel’s sole employee, might be the most suspicious character of all.  Last but not least is Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo), a down-on-her-luck lounge singer headed for Reno, who might be the only person at the El Royale who doesn’t have a secret agenda but is about to get tangled up with those who do.  And there’s more trouble coming in the form of charismatic cult leader Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth), who’s on the way with a posse of armed followers to reclaim what Emily took from him.  Before the night is through, there’ll be revelations, surprise twists, murder, and a lot of money thrown into the mix.

Bad Times at the El Royale divides itself neatly into titled chapters focusing on each character in turn, providing us with snippets of each character’s backstory and slowly unspooling everyone’s real agendas and how and why they ended up at the El Royale (though a couple plot points remain a little murky and muddled).  One key moment is shown from three different perspectives.  This is sometimes intriguing, when switching to a different character’s perspective of the same scene makes us privy to information other characters are oblivious to, and sometimes frustrating, when the backstory flashbacks occasionally the momentum and tension of what’s going on in the present (the final flashback, while making a moving revelation about a character, is the most glaring example of this).  For the most part, though, this narrative structure of twisty turny plot and “one piece at a time” revelations serves effectively to keep us intrigued through the slow burn pace (there’s a sporadic burst of brutal violence, but this is not an action movie).  Also, while I wouldn’t go so far as to call the movie a dark comedy, there’s a low-key tongue-in-cheek undertone, and the movie occasionally enjoys lobbing curveballs at the audience that upend our previous expectation of what was going on (certain characters turn out to be either more or less sympathetic than we might initially expect, and one seemingly set up as a central character is abruptly disposed of sooner than we expect).

The eclectic cast is in sync with the material, including some demonstrating previously unsung range by playing against type (Dakota Johnson and Chris Hemsworth, I’m looking at you).  Jeff Bridges, the closest thing our ensemble has to a lead, uses his effortless screen presence and gruff charm to get us to sympathize with a dubious character, especially in a poignant monologue where he makes a truthful confession to Darlene.  The other standout is lesser-known Cynthia Erivo, who’s won a Tony Award onstage but has little film exposure, whose Darlene is the most innocent and the most “what you see is what you get” of the various people converging on the El Royale, and whose survival we develop a rooting interest in, especially when she gets to have a quietly dignified moment of empowerment against an abusive man of the sort she’s been kicked around by before (she also gets to show her singing pipes on multiple occasions).  More than anyone else, Bridges and Erivo manage to imbue their characters with enough depth and feeling to make us root for them to make it out alive.  Of the others, Jon Hamm uses his suave presence to veil his inscrutable character’s uncertain motives and allegiances, Dakota Johnson proves she can be a capable actress when not mired in the dreck of the Fifty Shades of Gray “franchise”, and virtual unknowns Lewis Pullman (son of Bill Pullman) and Cailee Spaeny (who appeared in Pacific Rim: Uprising earlier this year) are credible as the tortured Miles and vapid, Manson Girl-esque Rose (I have no previous familiarity with Lewis Pullman, but if his performance here is any indication, he might already be a stronger actor than his father).  Chris Hemsworth seems to be enjoying himself playing against action hero type to basically serve as our “villain”, although apart from a couple scattered flashbacks he doesn’t show up “in the flesh” until the last twenty minutes or so, when he proves surprisingly effective turning his charisma and sex appeal to the dark side as a character who’s less like Thor and more like Charles Manson.  This is arguably the most range Hemsworth has ever shown.

Bad Times at the El Royale is occasionally guilty of being overly self-indulgent and a little “try hard” in its plain aspirations of being a Tarantino wannabe (though excessive self-indulgence is a charge Tarantino is guilty of as well), and its offbeat narrative structure and slow burn pace will turn off some viewers.  But for those who enjoy a dark and twisted thriller served up with some surprise twists and a dollop of morbid humor, it’s an enjoyable ride.  The guests might be in for a bad night, but if this kind of movie is your cup of tea, you could do a lot worse than spending a couple hours checked in to the El Royale.

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