Writer and director Drew Goddard’s latest picture, the pulpy, ultraviolent Bad Times at the El Royale, entertains even as it loses its way with countless subplots and narrative red herrings. The movie’s flabby runtime of two hours and twenty-one minutes engenders a sense of interminability rather than rapturous suspense, the latter undoubtedly being Goddard’s goal. Royale’s bleak worldview – the movie’s happy ending feels like it’s going through the motions and rings a little hollow considering the nihilistic killing and suffering in its climax – makes me hesitate to call it fun. But in more than a few ways, it’s just that. Royale’s phenomenal production value, stellar cast, and creation of a heroic rooting interest (once it finally comes) make it more enjoyable than it otherwise would be.
Set in 1970, the once glamorous El Royale hotel and casino has seen better days. The hotel’s novelty comes from the fact that half of the property sits in California and the other half sits in Nevada, with a bold red line painted down the middle to mark the shared border. Once a hot spot for celebrities and politicians in the swinging 60s, the El Royale fell out of favor after management lost their gaming license. Four guests, each with their own secrets and ulterior motives, check in at the deserted hotel. There’s vacuum salesman Laramie Seymour Sullivan, Catholic priest Daniel Flynn, singer Darlene Sweet, and the intense and mysterious Emily Summerspring. These four guests, the people on their trail, and Miles Miller, the hotel’s only employee, who has his own troubled past, collide with each other over a single night as their dark secrets are revealed.
Bad Times at the El Royale’s weakest point is its derivative nature. Goddard wears his influences on his sleeve – some of them being his very one work – but he’s never able to transcend them. Each plot development or device that evoked some other movie or television show only served to remind me how the original did it better. Royale’s structure is a classic bottle setup (or chamber piece, if you’re more pretentious, which I am) wherein the writer puts a limited number of characters together in a confined space, shakes them up, and turns them loose on each other.
A recent example of this mode of storytelling, and the one I kept thinking of as I watched Royale, is Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight. Tarantino himself is famous for repurposing his favorite cultural artifacts. Hateful Eight owes a huge debt to John Carpenter’s The Thing. The difference is that Tarantino is a singular talent and creative voice in a way that Goddard is not. Tarantino takes used parts and repurposes them into something wholly new and original. With Royale, Goddard is merely aping his influences.
And Tarantino’s body of work is clearly one of Royale’s biggest influences. I must wonder if the name of Goddard’s hotel is a cheeky reference to the “Royale with Cheese” scene from Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, since the lurid, pulpy tale we get here harkens back to that earlier film.
In addition to the film’s Hateful Eight-like structure, Goddard borrows from an anthology film in which Tarantino collaborated with three other directors, 1995’s Four Rooms. That movie also takes place in a hotel, and just like Royale, we are introduced to each character’s story with a title card announcing the character’s room number.
Goddard also uses his own past work as a guide for this tale of pathos and crime. The director has writing credits on nine episodes of the television series Lost, which used an elaborate series of flashbacks to tell the story of a group of plane wreck survivors marooned on a deserted island. Using Goddard’s meticulous setups, El Royale’s editor, Lisa Lassek, uses a bold cutting technique to transition between past and present so that the staging on each side of the cut is identical. With these Lost-like flashbacks, we learn the sordid details that brought each guest to the El Royale.
One of the most heartbreaking flashbacks comes when we learn the tale behind singer Darlene Sweet’s circumstances. Her story is particularly resonant in the #MeToo era. Darlene checks into the third-rate hotel to save some money. The hotels in Reno, where she books less than glamorous singing gigs in fourth-rate casinos, are too expensive. We find out that these are the only jobs she can get because a music producer black-balled her when she refused his sexual advances. While it’s more important to ensure that marginalized groups are allowed the opportunity to tell their own stories (which still doesn’t happen often enough), it’s encouraging that artists like Goddard are confronting these issues in their work.
Where Bad Times at the El Royale really succeeds, though, is in its production quality and performances. Goddard and his team, from cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, to production designer Martin Whist, to costume designer Danny Glicker, put every penny of their budget on screen. They recreate the late 60s Rat Pack atmosphere with an authentic vibrancy. Goddard also stages several vivid set pieces with bold stylistic choices.
The most memorable of these comes early in the film when vacuum salesman Sullivan (who we soon find out is not a salesman at all) discovers a secret about the hotel. He uncovers an “observation corridor” in which hotel staff can spy on every guest using a series of two-way mirrors and microphones. Goddard stages the corridor in near pitch-black, with rectangles of light from each room as the only illumination. Sullivan turns on the speaker to Sweet’s room as she rehearses a Motown hit for her upcoming show. Her haunting a cappella performance is all we hear as Sullivan slowly walks down the hall, his face reflecting our own bewilderment at the unfolding events.
In addition to a talented crew, Goddard also has a phenomenal cast to bring each of the mysterious characters to life. Particularly good is Tony-winning Broadway actress and singer Cynthia Erivo as down-on-her-luck Darlene Sweet. Erivo’s performance and character give a much-needed moral center to the film.
Jon Hamm and Jeff Bridges have fun as Sullivan and Father Flynn, respectively. Chris Hemsworth delivers an uncharacteristic but effectively menacing turn in the last act. As good as Hemsworth is, his character’s introduction adds to the piling on of subplots, and it ultimately makes the picture feel like ten pounds of movie in a five-pound bag.
Bad Times at the El Royale is a fun enough ride, albeit one that overstays its welcome. Goddard is a talented storyteller. I’m a fan of his film The Cabin in the Woods (which has a plot that is as twisty and elaborately constructed as El Royale’s). That film is more fun because it avoids the bloat that ends up weighing down this one. It also tweaks the conventions of its influences, rather than just using them as a guide.
Why it got 3 stars:
- Bad Times at the El Royale is a good enough time (if you don’t get beaten down by the nihilistic violence in the last act), but it is derivative and never rises above what it’s imitating. If you go, go for the production design and acting, which are both excellent.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- One of the flashbacks involves an armed robbery, and the criminals sport stylized masks that struck me as an homage to Stanley Kubrick’s 1956 noir film The Killing.
- A decision is made early in the film on the basis of a coin flip. I was pleasantly surprised by the extra weight this coin flip takes on due to a later revelation. Rach, of course, figured out the meaning when the actual coin flip took place. My being a hopeless dumb-dumb about figuring out what’s coming strikes again.
- One microscopic nit I would like to pick. One character is shown passed out after using heroin. Without giving anything away, I have to say, this character is the cleanest-cut heroin addict in the history of cinema.
- I’m a huge fan of composer Michael Giacchino, but his work here is forgettable. There is nothing distinctive about it, which is highly unusual for a Giacchino score.
- I have always been, and will always be, a sucker for the digital trickery of a camera moving directly in front of a mirror, but because of the CGI, we never see it. There is a great example of this in El Royale.
- While I’m on the subject of CGI, I’m dying to know how the visual effects team faked Chris Hemsworth eating a slice of pie in one scene. Hemsworth goes shirtless for most of his screen time, so I know he wasn’t really eating pie. Judging by his abs, there is no way that man has allowed a carbohydrate to pass his lips in at least a decade. I kid about the pie eating, but that man’s physique is… glorious.
Close encounters with people in movie theaters:
- This wasn’t a press or advance screening. I was a little late getting to this one, since it had already been out a week when I saw it. It was a decent sized crowd, and they mostly seemed into it. No applause or standing ovations, though.
Up Next at The Forgetful Film Critic:
- Biopics have been kind to Anthony McCarten. The novelist, playwright, and screenwriter received an Oscar nomination for his screenplay for The Theory of Everything, and as a producer on Darkest Hour (which he also wrote). McCarten’s new project is a biopic covering the life of singer Freddie Mercury and his tumultuous career with the band Queen. Director Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects, X-Men: Apocalypse) stages McCarten’s screenplay as a big budget spectacle on the level of one of Queen’s legendary concerts.