Bad Times at the El Royale
Sometimes, a movie comes along where you instantly know you’re safe in the hands of a master of the craft, someone who knows exactly the story they want to tell and precisely how to achieve it. All you have to do is sit back and exult in the joyful dexterity on display. Bad Times at the El Royale is such a movie, and Drew Goddard has outdone himself.
From the first scene, set ten years prior to the main action, Goddard has constructed a dizzyingly deft piece of work, stuffed with indelible characters portrayed by perfectly chosen performers, delirious twists and game-changing flashbacks, the package sealed by an accompanying, frequently diegetic soundtrack, playing in as it does to the essential plot beats of the whole. If there’s a better movie this year, it will be a pretty damn good one.
Not everyone has responded so favourably, though. One of the common charges levelled at Bad Times is that it’s Tarantino-lite. Meaning, it tells multiple, intertwining crime stories, juxtaposes time frames and relies on withholds and reveals – often of sudden, violently decisive variety – all the while supported by a dazzling soundtrack to tell its story.
Superficially valid perhaps, but Tarantino isn’t really a complex story guy. Most of his plots are fairly simple; it’s how he unspools them and the accompanying dressing that begs attention. Give him a conversation that disguises the true motive of a scene, and you pretty much have his modus operandi sussed. Goddard’s plotting is giddier, more gymnastic and elastic. “Neo-noir” is right in this case, and it reminds me more of the approach found in, say Shallow Grave or John Dahl’s ’90s noirs. There’s also Goddard’s earlier The Cabin in the Woods as an introductory text, hopping genres but with a similar obsession with surveillance and unseen pullers of strings.
Indeed, following a masterfully composed scene-setter a decade prior to the main event (to the accompaniment of 26 Miles (Santa Catalina) by The Four Preps), it’s the almost De Palma-esque walkabout of the surveillance setup that lends the picture its first unsettling frisson; Jon Hamm’s FBI agent Dwight Broadbeck – note perfectly overenthusiastic in his guise as vacuum salesman – has discovered a dark secret behind the walls
Such a scenario has more usually become the domain of the horror flick – as opposed to its period “pure” purpose here – and Goddard instinctively knows to tap into the necessary warped vibe in that regard. It also grants the picture the feeling that anything untoward may happen, and to anyone. It isn’t a surprise when Broadbeck exits the proceedings early, but that’s mainly because Hamm, while a natural TV leading man, hasn’t really broken into such territory in the movies; we naturally assume he’s a supporting player, and therefore expendable. It might have been different had Russell Crowe, originally cast, not dropped out.
Some criticisms have also focussed on the ultimately extraneous nature of the retrieved incriminating film reel – is the subject MLK? RFK? It’s a politically high-profile someone who is no longer living when this is set, in ’69 – but it never felt that was an end in itself to me. Just checking in to the El Royale represents a detour from the normal course of service (if you like, in the way vampires derailing a crime movie in From Dusk till Dawn does).
Thus, we were never going to meet “management” or fully explore Chris Hemsworth’s Manson-esque cult (Manson-esque, if Manson had a six pack). Albeit, Billy Lee doesn’t seem explicitly bent on engineering societal change, and whatever nastiness he’s no doubt done in his time, the specifically cited murders he’s involved appear to be down to the psychotic Rose (Cailee Spaeny), whose sister Emily (Dakota Johnson) has extracted her from the cult.
The latter reveal is one of number that turns what we think we know on its head, and even when we settle into a groove for the final act, Goddard still has a few twists in store (if I were to level a criticism, it would be that Goddard settles for a much more recognisable plot scenario at this point, but the way he plays it out leaves you feeling in no way short changed).
The main protagonists, though, are Darlene (Cynthia Erivo) and Flynn/O’Kelly (Jeff Bridges), the former having the distinction of being exactly who she appears to be at first glance, even though the occasional development throws that off, in particular bashing Flynn with a bottle; her voice is the key to her arriving at the hotel, and also to her winning through, against the odds, at key moments. She soothes the troubled Flynn and ensures a common bond, and in a virtuoso set piece allows him to dig unnoticed for his brother’s loot while Emily observes her “alone” through the room’s two-way mirror.
Darlene being the “good” or “innocent” lead brings with her the danger of the character coming across as one dimensional – the “weak man who talks a lot” scene could have fizzled with a lesser performer – but Erivo brings such presence and conviction, it’s easy to see why she’s being hailed as one of the breakout stars of the year.
Her chemistry with Bridges makes them a great unlikely pairing too. I was genuinely (pleasantly) surprised his character got to walk away from the carnage, since he seemed to have all the necessary baggage for going out tragically before the final curtain: slowly losing his faculties; being responsible for a botched robbery and therefore requiring movie justice; simply not being the chief protagonist.
I’ll admit to going through the movie most concerned over his fate (since there was no way Darlene would be killed), and even moments designed to throw you off – his drugging her drink suggested he might even turn out to be a variant on his The Vanishing character – didn’t lessen my interest in his fate. Bridges is much less mumble-mouth in this one than he has been in a few things of late (R.I.P.D., Kingsman: The Golden Circle), so either he’s got a new set of dentures or he just wears the voice for the role. I particularly loved his reaction to Deep Purple on the juke box, and his decision to beat the shit out of Billy Lee, doing a pretty convincing job of it too.
The other character of note is Lewis Pullman’s concierge Miles, probably the clearest marked out to have a dark secret, but no less enjoyable for it when he “hulks out” and is revealed as a crack shot. As with the political assassination element and the murderous cult, Goddard takes the Vietnam motif and marries it to the material in a manner that feels fresh and anti-formulaic. The closest you get to Miles’ malaise is something like Jacob’s Ladder, but Goddard isn’t detouring into that genre. Pullman’s performance is possibly the most affecting of the bunch, even as it’s undercut by gags at Miles’ expense when he discovers Flynn isn’t actually a priest.
Hemsworth proves again that he’s a compelling screen presence when he has a strong part, but is pretty vanilla when he doesn’t. Johnson leaves you wanting more, and Spaeny is suitably dippy-vicious. Memorable small roles too for Nick Offerman and Shea Whigham. And I want more Hamm in movies where he’s got a juicy role – you could see him really enjoying with the material, relishing the opportunity. The picture looks great courtesy of Seamus McGarvey, and Michael Giacchino provides a dependable score. The hotel set, with its California-Nevada split, extending into the nefarious areas, is a marvel too.
One wonders if Goddard hasn’t rather got the drop on Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, incoming next year and set in ’69 against the backdrop of the Manson murders. Of course, they’ll be entirely different – Tarantino’s will be a hit, for a start, and won’t be nearly as focussed (if there’s a complaint about his most recent works, above all else, it’s that they desperately need an editor unafraid to shut his butt down and tell him when to cut).
In that regard, I find the complaints that Bad Times at the El Royale is slow and indulgent mystifying; I haven’t been as fully immersed in a movie in a long time. Maybe it’s a positive that El Royale hasn’t been universally applauded, as it’s sure to embed its cult status. Certainly, exponentially more so that another writer-director’s guest-house-set movie from earlier this year, Hotel Artemis.
The contrasting danger is that it puts Bad Times at the El Royale in good company with The Cabin in the Woods; Goddard has gone through various floundering comic book movie possibilities with Sinister Six and then X-Force (good luck on that one with the Disney-Fox deal), and I just hope he’s able to get a hit under his belt before long, so he can keep making movies as original and gratifying as this one. El Royale has delicious cheese.