By Jessica Owoc
October 6, 2018
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: A salesman, a priest, a lounge singer, and a hippie walk into a hotel and what happens next…well, you’ll have to head to your nearest theater and see Bad Times at the El Royale to find out.
The story begins as the four strangers mentioned above (played by Jon Hamm, Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo, and Dakota Johnson) check in for a night at the El Royale. Sitting directly on the border of California and Nevada, the now nearly abandoned hotel drips in the kitsch and glory of its more popular days. With only one employee, the front desk clerk Miles (Lewis Pullman), the guests are in for a night they won’t soon forget. It doesn’t take long for each guest to reveal their true intentions, as the El Royale isn’t the only one with a past.
In his second film as writer and director, Drew Goddard (Cabin in the Woods), expertly weaves the stories of seven people while revealing the mysteries that surround the infamous hotel. Using humor, suspense, and clever storytelling, there is never a dull moment at the El Royale. Providing the perfect creepy backdrop, the El Royale itself seems to take the idea of being a hotel on the border. Everything in the place, down to the keychains, represents a side of the divide: California or Nevada. A red line separates the hotel so you know which state you’re on and the clerk assures the guests even if they are staying on the Nevada side, they can enjoy the California amenities.
The El Royale is definitely stuck in its past. Once a hotbed for high-profile figures who wished to have some fun unnoticed, by the time our guests arrive it is clear the hotel has seen better days as it creeps into the early ‘70s. By using a soundtrack of songs mostly popular in the mid-to late-sixties, Goddard creates an almost eerie feeling as the voices of Frankie Valli and The Four Tops seep out of the jukebox to a nearly empty room. Goddard, who is known for making genres his own, doesn’t stick to one playbook. Combining dark and moody lighting, rainy nights, and non-linear storytelling typically found in film noir with the secrets of the guests and the hotel to create a mystery, Goddard once again shows his talent for turning genre upside down.
The secrets of the El Royale hotel run deep but the real stars are, well, the stars themselves. It’s no easy task to tell the stories of seven different people, but Goddard manages to give them each a beginning, middle and end. Many of the character tropes are ones we’ve seen before, particularly the role of the cult leader (more on that later). However, with good writing and the way Goddard pieces out the story, utilizing familiar character types is a small offence and a forgivable one. It’s no surprise Mad Men’s Jon Hamm fits right in to the early ‘70s era of El Royale and, while his character, Southern vacuum cleaner salesman Laramie Seymour Sullivan, may be a bit more gregarious than Don Draper, the two may have more in common as far as secret identities go. Dakota Johnson as Emily, the enigmatic hippie who doesn’t like small talk, has a few funny one-liners, but with a large cast it’s easy to get lost amongst the heavy hitters. Johnson didn’t seem to have the opportunity to shine as bright as some of the others.
The standouts of this ensemble, however, are Jeff Bridges and Cynthia Erivo. Their relationship, which starts in the parking lot of the El Royale, drives the story forward as it unfolds. Bridges gives a performance that toes the line of emotional and funny as perfectly as the red line that runs directly through the hotel. Erivo excels as lounge singer Darlene Sweet, who dreams of something more but refuses to compromise who she is. Darlene stands her ground in any situation, even when it may mean life or death. Not to mention, El Royale gives her plenty of opportunities to show off her pipes. Hey Cynthia, when’s the album coming out?
Don’t worry, Chris Hemsworth hasn’t been forgotten. Not playing one of the initial guests, Hemsworth’s Charles Manson-esque character, Billy Lee, doesn’t show up until later in the film. However, that doesn’t stop him from being a force to be reckoned with. Hemsworth easily slips into the charismatic cult leader role and it’s easy to see why people would flock to him. Billy Lee’s character and connection to the rest of the players isn’t anything groundbreakingly new, and when a certain subplot is introduced, it doesn’t take long to connect Hemsworth’s backstory with that of two other guests. The predictability detracts from the film a bit, but Hemsworth’s charm was able to make up for it for the most part. The cast is rounded out by the meek and mild front desk clerk, Miles, who, on par with the rest of the characters, has more to offer than meets the eye. Cailee Spaeny is the final guest and even though she has a small role, her actions catapult the film into its final act.
From the moment the characters gather in the lobby (a moment reminiscent of the cult classic Clue: an eclectic group of people coming together under sinister circumstances), Bad Times at the El Royale packs in enough action and suspense to keep the audience on their toes. Even with slightly predictable backstories, El Royale makes for an entertaining movie going experience. Don’t be afraid to check into the El Royale, the neon light is always on.
Star Rating: 4 out 5 stars