BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE
Director: Drew Goddard
Screenwriter: Drew Goddard
Runtime: 141 mins.
Australian release date: 11 October 2018
Previewed at: Event Cinemas, George Street, Sydney, on 10 October 2018.
Drew Goddard, the writer and director of Bad Times At The El Royale usually devotes himself to the sci-fi and horror genres, having cut his teeth writing for TV’s Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Angel, before moving on to Lost; for cinema, he’s written Cloverfield, The Cabin In The Woods (which he also directed), World War Z and The Martian. Which means that Bad Times At The El Royale is something of a departure for him, because this is a film that has its feet firmly planted on terra firma and it’s steeped in very earthly pursuits, namely greed, sex, drugs, religion and the pursuit of power. It’s a heady brew whose main fault is that there are just a few too many ingredients, leaving you with a bit of a hangover - as with most hangovers, though, you have a lot of fun getting it.
It’s 1969 and a group of strangers converge on the El Royale hotel, an establishment that literally straddles the California/Nevada border and has fallen on hard times, having lost its gambling license. Back in the day it was a celebrated rendezvous for the rich and famous, reminders of which we see in the framed photographs adorning its walls. The guests include a vacuum cleaner salesman (John Hamm), a priest (Jeff Bridges), an aspiring singer (Cynthia Erivo), and a kidnapper (Dakota Johnson) and her victim (Cailee Spaeny), but it quickly becomes apparent that only one of these people is who they say they are and they all have different reasons for being there. The sole, very nervous, hotel employee is the desk clerk, Miles (Lewis Pullman), and he looks distinctly unhappy that these unexpected guests have lobbed in his lobby. As the night passes, we go behind the closed doors of each of the hotel rooms and the secrets of the occupants seem to be revealed, but at the El Royale very little is as it appears... When a final guest (Chris Hemsworth) shows up with a gang of henchmen, the real stories of this disparate group begin to be unearthed.
In writing Bad Times At The El Royale, it’s easy to suspect that Goddard has been influenced by the oeuvre of Quentin Tarantino, especially by, but not limited to, The Hateful Eight. Still, Tarantino’s not a bad role model to have, particularly for stories like these. For the most part, this is a very engaging film with a lot going for it. Where it suffers, I think, is when it tries to do too much. Goddard’s screenplay touches on every prominent theme from the ‘60s you can think of (with the possible exception of the moon landing) and this means spreading itself a bit too thin. The performances are all terrific, however, especially the always entertaining Bridges and the wonderful Ms. Cynthia Erivo. What a sublime voice she has, worth the price of admission alone! Aussie actor Chris Hemsworth excels himself in quite a different role for him, playing a Charlie Manson-type character. He exudes a wicked mixture of charisma and malevolence.
With so many characters and storylines, Bad Times At The El Royale is a movie that required careful choreography to orchestrate the actor’s movements because there are times when the camera prowls past all the rooms in a single shot, letting us see what’s going on inside them simultaneously. It’s impressive, particularly because this is only Goddard’s second feature as director. Lovers of sharp, modern American crime films will find there’s much to appreciate at the El Royale.