By Bo Nicholson - Managing Director
Directed by Drew Goddard (The Cabin in the Woods)
Cast: Jeff Bridges, Jon Hamm, Dakota Johnson, Chris Hemsworth
Duration: 141 Minutes
Rated MA 15+
This is not a place for a priest, Father. You shouldn’t be here.
The El Royale rests on the border of California and Nevada. What was once a bustling centre for the affluent during its peak, is now so obscure that the motel’s one employee doesn’t deem it necessary to answer his bell when it is check-in time. Make no mistake, the El Royale is not befitting of its name. Its casino has closed down because of regulations, no one ever mans the bar and if you want food you need to get it out of a vending machine. At the dawn of the 1970s, only the toughest characters belong in a place like the El Royale.
The film opens on a flashback of a man murdered in a motel room after cleverly hiding a bag beneath the floorboards. 10 years later it is a sunny day in the carpark of the El Royale and we meet Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo), a soul singer en-route to Reno for a gig. She notices Father Flynn (Jeff Bridges) absent-mindedly standing and staring in the direction of one of the motel rooms. They exchange niceties before meeting Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm), a quick-talking salesman who has been there for a considerable time waiting for the staff to answer his call but wants it known that he simply must have the Honeymoon Suite. Eventually the staff member, Miles (Lewis Pullman) attends to the 3 guests nervously as Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson) hoons into the carpark, rudely pushes herself ahead in the queue and writes her name as ‘FUCK OFF’ in the register. Suffice it to say, in a movie drenched in Film Noir clichés, all of these characters are not what they seem. Fate has brought them together at the El Royale on this day in late 1969, but what does fate have in store for them?
Drew Goddard burst onto the scene with the highly rated horror-thriller The Cabin in the Woods in 2012, which he wrote and directed. In fact, prior to that hit film he’d built a reputation as a writer, having written a handful of episodes for Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Lost, among others. Like The Cabin in the Woods, El Royale is a film packed with twists and turns that manages to hold extreme levels of suspense for sustained periods. Goddard has proven, again, that he is an exciting talent.
In fact, the first hour and a half feels like high-quality cinema as we learn more and more about the characters and watch them behave in ways that we aren’t used to seeing in a film. Given the fact that the El Royale is a closed location filled with dangerous people, suspense is only natural as the score creeps along any dark alleys of the hotel’s back area, only interrupted by a blistering soundtrack of late 60s soul hits and the arresting acapella singing of Darlene Sweet, which is so bizarre to see but feels so deliriously pure when watching it.
The cinematography of Seamus McGarvey (Atonement) is wonderful; carefully using the tight spaces to his advantage to force tension upon the audience while still managing some virtuoso moments (Darlene urgently leaving the lobby at night to reveal the red, neon-lights of the hotel bearing down upon her, or a field of yellow flowers so stunning that a shirtless Chris Hemsworth is not the most beautiful thing in the frame).
What feels like a popcorn hit is quickly revealed to be packing more of a punch. Goddard doesn’t appear interested in his characters remaining as archetypes, instead imbuing them with enough back-story to round them out as humans. This works nicely as we see each person’s version of the events that transpire (in a clever use of the Rashomon-effect), learning more about the situation each time we see it through fresh eyes.
The film’s themes appear borne out of the motivations of its characters. It becomes a film about the good and evil in each person, and the fine line between the two, and the choices we make. If you are in a tough situation but want to be a good person or do the right thing, then you best be prepared to make some sacrifices. Spirituality also lives at the core of this film, further bringing to the spotlight the consequences of all of our actions.
This emotional weight the film shoots for is a strength for much of its duration that becomes a glaring flaw towards the end of the film as it introduces more characters, including the maniacal cult-leader Billy Lee (played by the aforementioned Chris Hemsworth). With 7 main characters and Goddard’s desire to flesh them all out as humans, the film’s ending becomes a bit of a slog just when the suspense should be ramping up. Sometimes, all we need to know is the bare basics about a side character or a villain; they have a role in the narrative that they must perform. Goddard’s mission to make them all feel organic has hindered his film significantly because it could not maintain its tension. As genuinely shocking things were unfolding in the last 20 minutes or so, I found myself caring very little about the outcome, which is never a good sign.
Still, there is so much to like here, even if the impact is lessened by its scope. Cynthia Erivo is really fantastic as Darlene Sweet, the score and the soundtrack are brilliant and McGarvey’s cinematography is at times astonishing. A lot of good craft has gone into making this film. The plot falls apart at a certain point, but it’s still refreshing to see an original story in the cinema; one that isn’t afraid to take some risks and shoot for the stars. This is exactly the kind of film that needs support in the cinema because we need to see more writers and directors with unique visions and presenting new ideas in interesting ways. While not perfect, Bad Times at the El Royale is well worth a watch and may become a fan-favourite in years to come.
Have you seen Bad Times at the El Royale? Do you agree or disagree with Bo? Let us know in the comments!
Bo Nicholson is a Managing Director at The Pioneer Australia, who thinks that if you want to see a film with the Rashomon-effect, you should totally just watch Rashomon. He also creates content for Pure Cinema which you can find on YouTube.