Bad Times at the El Royale - 2018
Director(s): Drew Goddard
Writer(s): Drew Goddard
Cinematography by: Seamus McGarvey
Editor(s): Lisa Lassek
Cast: Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo, Dakota Johnson, Jon Hamm, Chris Hemsworth, Cailee Spaeny, Nick Offerman and Lewis Pullman
I ended up watching this movie twice. I feel my first viewing was tainted by my expectations set from the marketing. I came in expecting a mystery thriller, full of dark humor and violence. While the first act lives up to my expectation, even giving me 1985’s Clue vibes, the second and third act takes a left turn as it subverts expectations and becomes a character study of the 1960s. I’m not saying I didn’t enjoy the movie the first time around, I just wanted to give it a fair chance to tell its story. And I’m happy I did. Let’s talk about it.
The story takes place at a rundown hotel called El Royale, best known for it being in between two states (California and Nevada), but long forgotten after the fall of its gambling heyday. Seven strangers meet in this hotel on a random night, only to see their dark secrets bubble up and come back for one last encounter. Drew Goddard is an exciting writer; he tends to use the bones of a genre to build a critique or a comment of said genre. See Cabin in the Woods as an example. This time around he uses the neo-noir genre to deliver a study of the 1960s, or at least how the zeitgeist remembers it. A decade marked by political scandals, conspiracy theories surrounding assassinations, the Vietnam War/anti-war movement, Woodstock “peace and love,” civil rights movement and the space race. We often tell ourselves we miss the good old days, but here Goddard’s point is that the old days were as tainted as today with the use of the cult, led by Chris Hemsworth, that comes into play in the third act, mirroring the Manson Family.
Quick note: there are multiple scenes in which a character is viewed through a double-sided mirror, creating almost a zoo like imagery to the events. It’s as if the movie is conserving them in their natural habitat for us to view and judge.
Goddard used many 60s tropes and set them inside of this rundown hotel, a symbol of former glory, and let them play off each other. It touches on the PTSD of the Vietnam war that went overlooked for many years in the form of the hotel clerk, the loss of faith in the Catholic church as the priest character is really a bank robber and is only using the collar as a disguise for his true motives. The conspiracy theories of J. Edgar Hoover and his abuse of wiretapping for political gains. How the music scene ran rampant with abuse of power - especially with its black singers - and above all this Goddard hangs the dark cloud of the cult movement that preyed on all the lost souls weakened by all the events mentioned. He shows us how this generation was hungry for anything and anyone to guide them, only to be used and abused in the hands of an egomaniacal leader, disguised as a handsome, peace-loving man (I mean look at Hemsworth).
Quick note: I loved the visual representation of good and evil, or at the very least right and wrong. Since the hotel is divided into two states, there are multiple shots of people standing on that line before making a choice. Nevada being the home of “The Sin City” and California known as the “land of milk and honey” just adds to this visual.
Now while the writing is smart and the visuals are slick, the acting is the stand-out by far. This entire cast - well almost - delivered top-notch performances. Jon Hamm has a great dual role in where we meet him, and he plays this hambone door to door salesman that has a mouth quicker than his brain, and later we understand why he is this over the top. Jeff Bridges plays a broken man trying to honor the memory and sacrifice of his brother, even though his mind isn’t what it used to be. Lewis Pullman plays the Vietnam Vet that is seeking redemption for the deaths he was part off - I felt his remorse and pain as the world kept putting him in situations that went against his faith. Dakota Johnson is good as she is trying to save her little sister, Cailee Spaeny, from the clasp of the cult. Spaeny was the weak link in this cast by far. To be fair she has to play an emotionless, dead-eyed, loyal subject, but it came out forced and unbelievable.
While the rest of the cast is solid, the movie belongs to Cynthia Erivo and Chris Hemsworth. Erivo plays a struggling singer trying to make ends meet as best she can. She has seen the world screw her over enough times to know that she has to take the matter into her own hands. She also showcases her beautiful singing voice as it is used throughout the movie. Hemsworth plays a smiling, loving hippie that hides deep and ugly darkness behind each smile. They have a scene together in which their back and forth is drenched in tension, and I love every minute of it. Hemsworth was terrifying and commanded every frame he was part of, and the only one to go toe to toe with him was Erivo. The movie was worth watching just for their scene.
Bad Times at the El Royale is a stylish entry into the neo-noir genre. I’m impressed by how Goddard wrote a flashy script set it in an original structure and brought out beautiful performances from almost the entire cast. But I’m more impressed that Fox made this weird movie, to begin with, and by how the critics and the audience are responding, I’m happy they did. My recommendation is to walk into this movie with zero expectations and let the film take you where it wants to take you. Goddard is why I love movies.
Bad Times at the El Royale is currently playing in theaters. Don’t let me title fool you, it’s a good time.
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