Bad Times at the El Royale is one movie you’ll want to revisit


Bad Times at the El Royale is a twisted gem filled with mystery and a massively talented ensemble cast ready to let loose and go wild.

Whether it’s a haunted house with a lore of death and destruction, or an old hotel that caters to the rich and powerful, movies understand it’s all about “location, location, location.” Hollywood loves a location with history, and director Drew Goddard is the master of finding a place and crafting a twisted tale around it. In 2012 Goddard wowed audiences with his meta-horror narrative, Cabin in the Woods, and took some time between projects to pen the Academy Award-nominated script for The Martian. But Goddard is back with a slick story of seven strangers and one hotel that holds all manner of secrets. Going in cold is your best bet to truly appreciate the treats that lie within!

Once the “hidey hole for Tahoe swells,” the El Royale Hotel was the hideout for the rich and famous looking for the dark and sordid. Residing on the line between Nevada and California, the hotel has fallen on hard times. When a group of unrelated strangers stop in, the El Royale’s long-buried secrets will be revealed, along with everyone else’s.

A heavily protected script and a swift production schedule gave Bad Times at the El Royale an air of mystery before the first trailer even dropped. So it’s understandable that much of what makes the movie so fantastic hasn’t been advertised. Characters drop into the El Royale with their stories told via regimented chapters marked by their respective room numbers. The concept is akin to the work of Quentin Tarantino, although without nearly the self-congratulatory aura about it. Glimpses into everyone’s backstory are given, leading to a runtime that is lengthy but never laborious. The movie could become a miniseries in the future, and I’d be all for it!

Immediately we’re introduced to singer Darlene Sweet, a take on acclaimed singer Darlene Love, played by Cynthia Erivo; the priest with a shadowy past, Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges); the alliterative, pretty racist vacuum salesman, Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm); and quiet hotel manager Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman). Each of the characters has things they’re trying to escape or run towards, and, like Cabin in the Woods, the concept of free-will versus predetermination runs free. As Miles lays out the differences between the Nevada side of the hotel versus the California side, it’s obvious the group aren’t selecting hotel rooms, but the manner in which their life plays out from here on.

Each of the chapters acts as a mini-showcase for the ensemble cast who you shouldn’t get used to in any form. That’s not a spoiler, but suffice it to say life and death factors heavily into the proceedings, and Goddard reminds you constantly that everyone is expendable. Erivo and Bridges are the closest we come to protagonists. Both are extraordinary.

The Tony-award winning Erivo brings out Darlene Sweet’s muted hostility about her life and career. A backup singer propositioned to sell herself for fame and fortune, Darlene just loves singing and is tired of the politics, usually led by men, that comes with wanting to achieve that. Erivo gets several opportunities to showcase her talents, and her performance of “Unchained Melody” is downright haunting considering the situation and the way Goddard films it. She’s also given a particularly prescient speech about men talking that is the mood for 2018.

Darlene’s relationship with Father Flynn, though platonic, is one fraught with mistrust. Everyone knows he’s not really a priest — the greatest joke of the film — and yet Bridges is able to sell the character as a man torn between wanting to be pious and having a dark past. Bridges captivates. As he discusses his lapses in memory with Darlene, Bridges’ eyes well up. He’s a man terrified about losing control of his mind, and yet feels helpless. “You look around and you’re someone else.” What’s scary is not that he’s losing his memory, but that he knows it. He’s living a walking death he can’t shake.

With a storm raging outside, the rest of the characters swirl around Darlene and Flynn, bringing in violence and manipulation. Lewis Pullman’s frightened, numbed Miles is revelatory. His story, revealed in the final minutes of the movie, ties in Goddard’s look at the time period alongside the individual. The time period is never stated, though the strongest argument is 1969, and Pullman illustrates the existential dread of doing things in the name of patriotism he can’t reconcile with. Desperate to confess his sins the entire film, Pullman makes your heart ache for a man who feels he’s damned himself for eternity.

The 1969 time period is popular for films like this, yet Goddard isn’t interested in making Bad Times at the El Royale a movie where you point and say “Oh, that’s this event,” though that happens. Instead, his story of a shadowy “management” holding onto dangerous tapes and a particular reel of film that could determine the course of the country says a lot about our times without explicitly saying so. In fact, the most pointed moments come in the film’s final third, when Hemsworth’s swaggering Billy Lee arrives to add one more drop of poison to the El Royale stew. The trailers have both hyped Hemsworth’s character and kept a ton under wraps, and that’s to the film’s credit. Billy Lee is an obvious caricature of a specific figure, but Hemsworth plays the role so brilliantly and with such pathos. And kudos to Drew Goddard for emphasizing the female gaze in his character.

The one who seems to get the least amount to do is Dakota Johnson as Emily Summerspring. Though she arrives at the El Royale alongside the rest of the cast, her story — that alludes to sexual assault — is truncated. She’s given a few scenes, but her character comes off as the least developed, and Johnson is silent for much of it. There is a wonderful moment of her stalking a hotel corridor, though, that emphasizes how expressive her face is.

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Drew Goddard is no one-trick pony, and Bad Times at the El Royale is a rollicking good time of ’60s nostalgia, paranoia, and dark comedy you’ll want to see again as soon as the credits start. “Get the whiskey” and watch Bad Times at the El Royale.