Film Review – Bad Times At The El Royale (2018)

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Movie settings don’t get much better than a hotel.  Think about it: as many characters as you like, all in their individual rooms but with the opportunity to come together, all in a confined location where anything could happen.  In anywhere from The Grand Budapest Hotel through The Shining to The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.  It’s hard, however, to imagine there were ever good times at the El Royale, which straddles the state line dividing California and Nevada – and, yes, the Californian rooms are more expensive.

In Drew Goddard’s Bad Times At The El Royale, its first incarnation is in the 1950s, run-down and non-descript.  Ten years later, it’s had an upgrade of sorts, but it’s still soulless: there’s just one member of staff who does everything, elaborate vending machines dispensing horrible food and a massive jukebox in lieu of live entertainment.  And yet it’s a place with ambitions way beyond reality, as the garish décor and gambling tables testify.  The individual rooms aren’t any better.  This is where a group of strangers come together: a smooth talking vacuum cleaner salesman, a priest, a singer, a woman and her younger sister and a cult leader.  Added to the mix is the young, solitary member of hotel staff.  Some are exactly what they appear to be, others are not.  Some of their stories intersect, others don’t, but they all connect somehow.

Every single one of them has history, Miles (Lewis Pullman) the one and only hotel employee included: they each have their segment in the spotlight, complete with heading, so what writer/director Goddard gives us is a neo-noir jigsaw.  Even when there’s no actual intersection between the characters, they still have a link, however small, so all the pieces fit, and fit tightly.  It makes for a fascinating, complex picture which manages to make perfect sense and is surprisingly easier to follow than it might sound.

Goddard’s also created an atmosphere to give you goosebumps of pleasure and fear: it augers well for his forthcoming stint on X-Force.  Admittedly, he falls back on what is usually a cliché, a torrential thunderstorm as the backdrop to a blood soaked climax, but it’s still remarkably effective and, as something of a noir convention, it illustrates his love for the genre.  As does the duplicity-packed plot, which takes the audience on a hairpin bend ride that entertains for the most part, only sagging occasionally because of the film’s division into individual stories.

The cast is especially well chosen, in some instances brilliantly.  Jeff Bridges, in particular, turns in his best performance since Hell Or High Water as aging priest, Father Flynn, one that mixes ambiguity with genuine, unexpected, pathos.  His scenes with Cynthia Erivo as an apparently naive singer who’s never quite made it, are one of the highlights of the film – and there’s a split second between them that you simply won’t see coming.  It’s moments like that which never allow you to get too comfortable, keeping you guessing all the time.  Xavier Dolan puts in a one scene appearance as a manipulative record exec and, with the likes of Jon Hamm, Dakota Johnson and Chris Hemsworth playing some of the other strangers, it’s hard to imagine how anybody could wrong with this line-up.

Fans of 60s retro will be in their element, with the period beautifully created – the garish chrome décor, the soundtrack which comes mainly from the jukebox and, more surprisingly, the politics.  It’s not difficult to work out who’s shown on the roll of film discovered by Flynn – this is a motel with even more secrets than anybody expects – and it’s also a world where men rule.  Not that the women necessarily accept the status quo and there’s a sniff of change in the air.  Despite its failings, Bad Times At The El Royale is a highly entertaining ride, one that keeps you guessing all the way.  In reality, this is the sort of hotel you’d happily drive past, but there’s plenty of reasons for making an exception where the film is concerned.  Check in.  Just don’t expect to be comfortable.

Freda Cooper | ★★★ 1/2

Thriller, Crime | UK, 12 October (2018) | Twentieth Century Fox | Dir. Drew Goddard | Jeff Bridges, Jon Hamm, Chris Hemsworth, Dakota Johnson, Cynthia Erivo, Lewis Pullman and Xavier Dolan.