BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Drew Goddard

Stars: Jeff Bridges, Jon Hamm, Chris Hemsworth, Cynthia Erivo, Dakota Johnson, Lewis Pullman, Cailee Spaeny, Nick Offerman, Shea Whigham, Xavier Dolan.

Jeff Bridges, Jon Hamm, and Cynthia Erivo in Bad Times at the El Royale (2018)The El Royale hotel straddles the border between California and Nevada, and guests can have a choice of staying in the California suites, which offer warmth or the Nevada rooms which seem to offer a bridge between the past and a brand-new future. It is 1969, the tail end of darker and turbulent period of American history with Richard Nixon in the White House. J Edgar Hoover is still in charge of the FBI, and the Vietnam War is raging in South-East Asia.

The El Royale itself is a relic of better times, and its glory days are behind it although those relics of the past are still palpable. Long gone are the days when the likes of Dean Martin and the Rat Pack would play and party there on their way to Las Vegas. Now there seems to be minimal staff on duty, with the hotel’s front desk being attended by the twitchy and overly anxious to please concierge Miles (played by Lewis Pullman, son of actor Bill Pullman), who is addicted to drugs.

On this one day a group of strangers all check into the El Royale. There is the Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges), a down on his luck priest of dubious repute with a taste for whiskey; down on her luck backup singer Darlene Sweet (Tony Award winning Broadway star Cynthia Erivo in her film debut) hoping to try her luck in Reno; slick motor mouthed vacuum cleaner salesman Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Mad Men’s Jon Hamm) who seems keenly interested in checking the hotel register; and the sassy and surly, anti-social, tough as nails ex-hippy Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson). But none of these people is who they initially seem – they all have their own secrets and reasons for checking into the hotel.

An opening prologue showed a man (Nick Offerman) burying a bag of money beneath the floorboards of one of the rooms in the hotel ten years earlier. Which of the guests has an interest in finding the money? The hotel itself has its secrets – what is it with the hidden corridor between the rooms and the two-way mirrors? And why is one room being filmed by a camera? Many of these questions are answered along the way. There is violence and death and a few surprises along the way, and the film deliberately keeps audiences on the edge and uncertain what will happen next.

And then the arrival of Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth), a charismatic Charlie Manson-like cult leader, turns everything upside down.

Bad Times At The El Royale has been written and directed by Drew Goddard, who previously wrote the film adaptation of The Martian and gave us the bizarre Cabin In The Woods. Goddard’s script has a lean and mean feel to it and plays around with the tropes of the noir genre. The film is also something of an allegory about the state of America now as it also deals with themes of government surveillance, religion, a loss of faith, concepts of good and evil and race and power.

Goddard has clearly been influenced by the likes of Tarantino (and in particular his The Hateful Eight) with its clever structure that unfolds in distinct chapters, its retro soundtrack, its smart dialogue, the way he traps his characters in this claustrophobic setting, its touches of sudden and jarring violence. We see several scenes replayed from different perspectives. It also has touches of the quirky noir-like thrillers from the Coen Brothers as well as the hard-boiled pulp fiction noir stylings of the likes of Dashiel Hammett and James Ellroy, as well as some deft Hitchcock-like suspense. There are a couple of Macguffins in the plot as well – a mysterious tape recording and, of course, the buried money.

Bad Times At The El Royale is a very stylish and cinematic looking multi-layered crime drama about murder, blackmail, kidnapping. There is some superb production design from Martin Whist (Cabin In The Woods, etc) that creates the wonderful interiors of the hotel and gives each half a different look and feel and texture and recreates an authentic 60s vibe. Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey’s widescreen lensing beautifully captures the neon lit glory and the rain drenched settings, giving the material a slick and glossy surface sheen.

Goddard has assembled a solid ensemble cast to flesh out this cast of seedy and secretive characters, and they are all superb. Although cast largely against type here, Hemsworth brings swagger and charisma to his role here, and he also appears shirtless for most of the time flashing his six-pack washboard-like abs. The always reliable Bridges brings his usual gravitas, grizzled and gruff style, and sense of humour to his role. Pullman is excellent as Miles, while Johnson brings a darker edge to her performance as the sassy Emily. Newcomer Erivo has a strong screen presence and makes her Darlene a sympathetic character. Newcomer Cailee Spaeny (Pacific Rim: Uprising, etc) brings some energy to her role as Emily’s wilder and impressionable younger sister Rose, who is in thrall to the charismatic Billy Lee, and whose presence is the catalyst for some of the nasty events that occur.

Bad Times At The El Royale runs for 140 minutes, and it certainly crams in plenty of incidents and colourful characters into its sprawling structure. That it doesn’t seem that long by the time the final credits roll is to Goddard’s credit and his ability to draw out the tension.

★★★★

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