On the surface (and the trailers) Bad Times at the El Royale looks like a snark-filled, pulpy cinematic gimmick. But if you watch it and listen to it, you merge with it. This film sets a deliberate pace that doesn’t overwhelm you. From character introductions to bizarre plot twists to a climax filled with religious iconography, this film envelopes you.
From the story and cinematography aspects, the opening scene sets the stage for the rest of the movie. We watch a (justifiably) nervous man tear the room apart, hide a bag, and restore the room, only to be shot by someone he knows.
It’s all done on one static wide shot. We don’t get close enough to see any faces or get emotionally attached to the character or his task. We don’t even know (tho we suspect) that we are at the El Royale. Yet we are still shocked at the scene’s resolution.
From there we jump ahead ten years, and find ourselves in the hotel lobby. There is a bar and we would spend much more time there than the characters do. Honestly, they could all use a good drink!
There we meet five of our seven residents of the night. Actually we meet their alter-egos. No one is as they seem. The fake introductions are led by Jon Hamm’s vacuum salesman persona. We also meet Jeff Bridges as Fr. Flynn and Cynthia Erivo who plays Darlene, a struggling singer.
While she character is the most honest, she too has a secret. Eventually the hotel’s one-man-band employee comes to check them in and charge 25 cents per cup of coffee, and Dakota Johnson comes in looking for a room. Her sister is waiting in the car. The trunk of the car, actually.
Be My Guest
The guests aren’t the only ones hiding secrets. The El Royale is as much a character in the film as the actors. And it, too has its secrets, and we don’t mean just the hidden bag. It portrays itself as a place that straddles the California-Nevada border, offering different amenities on each side. But like the guests, that is just a kitschy façade to lure you in. There are hidden back passages. The two-way mirrors and other surveillance devices. The bell boy’s heroin den.
As we get introduced to all the quirks of the motel and its guests, we are entertained. The dialogue is intentionally sharp and filled with snark. But as we learn about the characters we are engrossed, and without realizing it, you have emotionally checked in to the El Royale.
Please, watch out for flying buckshot.
Music To Your Ears
The soundtrack of the movie is the soundtrack of their lives. Cynthia’s vocals set a haunting and foreboding tone. She is at her best when her voice is heard through the tinny surveillance speaker in the hidden passage. We’re pretty sure that song will haunt us tonight in our dreams!
The lobby’s jukebox also offers era-appropriate music that fits naturally into the film.
The director’s ability to blend a layered story with deep characters, a remote location, and amazing music is like a bartender making a signature cocktail that you’ve never had before and will never be replicated. You just sip it and enjoy it while you have it.
Worth A Shot
The director makes a choice to use unusual shots. Often, like in the opening scene, we find the actor staring straight into the camera. Not in a break-the-fourth-wall sort of way. The characters are not aware they’re in a movie. The way they stare at us gives us a chance to look right into them. It also feels as though they are looking right into us.
It’s haunting and a little jarring. But compared to what’s to come, it’s nothing.
Cult In the Middle With You
Eventually a few more guests arrive: Chris Hemsworth playing Billy Lee, a Charles Manson/David Koresh-like cult leader. Between his eyes and his abs, it’s easy to see how followers would be mesmerized!
His arrival kickstarts a bloody third act that makes every conflict up until now look like mere playground fights. There is roulette murder, betrayal of a sister, and a sharp-shooting sniper asking a fake priest for forgiveness as the symbolic fires of hell rage on all sides.
It is a lot to take in, but the film has spent two hours preparing itself and the audience for this moment.
Obviously this is just an overview of the movie. There is much more detail and plot twists which we don’t delve into, but they are all worth watching to guide us along the journey. This is definitely a well made film worth watching.
A Work of Fiction
This film has a definite Tarantino feel to it and is either an homage or blatant rip-off of some elements from Pulp Fiction. There is a reel of film that stands in for Marsellus’ briefcase. The too-smart-for-this-character exposition also harkens back to the mid-90s masterpiece.
Given how much we love this film we’re going to give them the benefit of the doubt and believe this is an homage.
The Critic’s Cocktail Recommendation
Whiskey. It’s Father Flynn’s drink of choice, and you’re going to need a belt or two to ease the damage this movie lovingly inflicts on your soul.