Bad Times at the El Royale - Movie Review

Bad Times at the El Royale - Movie Review

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Bad Times at the El Royale

Talented writer and director Drew Goddard has crafted a stylish, visually stirring, genre picture.  A neo-noir crime ensemble drama set in 1968 in a hotel that literally straddles the border of Nevada and California. A prologue set ten years in the past (1958) finds Felix O’Keely (Nick Offerman) burying a suitcase of money under the floor in one of the El Royale’s rooms. The framing and staging of this scene feels like you are watching a play or a large TV set. There is a reason for this and its revelation is just one of my tricks of this clever thriller.

The first part of the film focuses on four hotel guests and the lone hotel employee Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman.) The El Royale has a deserted feel and clearly has seen better days; therefore Miles functions as many employees. All the characters have something to hide and have ulterior motives. John Hamm plays southern vacuum sales man, Laramie Seymour Sullivan, who insists on the honeymoon suite although he isn’t wearing a wedding ring and is traveling alone. Dakota Johnson plays a mysterious alpha female hippie. An excellent Jeff Bridges plays a sixty-something priest (Father Flynn) and Tony winner Cynthia Erivo, making her feature film debut plays a down on her luck singer (Darlene).  Erivo, who is excellent, is also in Widows, which opens November 16. I saw Erivo in her Tony winning role in the revival of The Color Purple, and I’m blown away by her talent.  It’s not every day that a musical theater star slides this effortlessly and successfully into film drama.

The production design, the cinematography, the soundtrack, the costumes all work to deliver a stylish look. Because most of the film takes place in the hotel, it becomes another character, and the attention to detail with the décor is impressive.  Goddard knows how to build tension and atmosphere, which is good because there isn’t a lot going on for what seems like a very long time. It’s not that it isn’t interesting, rather it’s indulgent and presumptuous to assume that audiences can live off of mood for forty-five minutes.  Since every character is hiding something, these early scenes don’t reveal a tremendous amount of character either. Ultimately I’m ambivalent about the slow build, as a lot does happen eventually and there are some twisty turns and clever non-chronological story telling, but I am not sure if it adds up to any resonance, other than the conceit of its own unique look and cleverness.

Chris Hemsworth appears later in the film as an alluring, slithering, muscular and very dangerous cult leader. His character and his followers are a winking homage to Charles Manson, who of course was a huge part the culture in California in the late 1960’s.  Although Charles Manson never looked this good without his shirt, then again not do many people. All the actors in the film do interesting work, and understand the genre implicitly.  However, the film is clever, without being especially smart and its entertainment value may depend on how much you like the genre and enjoy the ride. I just wished I cared a little more for the characters and their interesting backstories, and the film was about a half an hour shorter. For a thriller it sure does take its time.

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