This could be Heaven, or this could be Hell.
Director Drew Goddard's sophomore feature plays out like a joke: a priest, a vacuum cleaner salesman, and a backup singer walk into a motel lobby. However, the punchline isn't so much a hilarious one-liner. It's a total bloodbath. Goddard follows up his critically acclaimed Cabin in the Woods with something that feels like a lost mid '90s movie, from the time where everyone and their mother started making ensemble self-aware neo-noir crime movies with cool, period soundtracks, tons of dialogue, stylish violence, and convoluted structures in the wake of Quentin Tarantino’s success.
This could be Heaven or this could be Hell, you could be thinking to yourself, as for the most part the film succeeds at standing among the crowd of Pulp Fiction wannabes. But while the entrance to Bad Times at the El Royale may entice you with cool characters and an intriguing mystery, the rooms are messy, uninvited guests come in at late hours, and the layout is confusing enough to make you want to check out early.
Welcome to the beautiful and lively motel El Royale--or at least it used to be. The massive front doors give way to a stylish ‘60s lobby, with a red line painted on the floor that divides the entire establishment into California and Nevada sections, each with appropriate decorations that invite guests to drink in California and then gamble in Nevada. But El Royale isn’t what it used to be in its Rat Pack glory days, especially after losing its gambling license. Now the giant Vegas-style neon sign isn’t glamorous, but tacky.
By the time our main guests arrive to check-in, there is plenty of room at the El Royale, and the sandwiches in the 1950s World Fair vending machines are expired. Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges), vacuum cleaner salesman Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm), background singer Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo), and a mysterious girl (Emily) who signs the ledger as “F*** you” (Dakota Johnson) all arrive looking for a room, each with their unique reasoning. As the motel’s lone clerk and only active employee, Miles (Lewis Pullman) guides them safely to their rooms, but a quiet night in the desert will soon turn violent and bloody.
Just like most Tarantino-inspired films of the ‘90s, Bad Times at the El Royale is divided into chapters, mostly reliving the moments following check-in from the perspective of each guest. Goddard plays with the idea that we all lie to each other and to ourselves, as no character is who they seem to be. Is he really a priest, or a salesman, or an FBI agent? Is it really a kidnapping, or a rescue? This works at first, as each chapter ends on a cliffhanger that further twists the plot and keeps you wanting to see more, especially Bridges and Erivo. The former plays a surprisingly vulnerable character suffering from the loss of memory and maybe something more, playing tough one moment, and weak the next. Eviro is the breakthrough star of the film, portraying a woman tired of dealing with bad men, and with a singing voice to destroy them all.
But as the film goes on, it starts to get repetitive, as you can only watch the same scene unfold so many times, and flashbacks start interweaving with the repeated scenes without adding much necessary information, but just an overly long runtime. Some of the most promising characters disappear or get killed rather quickly and without much explanation or reason, and the most interesting subplot--that of the El Royale’s surveillance tunnels and one-way mirrors--is abandoned as soon as it gets introduced and never given any pay-off.
Drew Goddard and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey shoot the hotel rooms like living dioramas, making film look like a stage play--like we are observing lab rats. Goddard also oversaturates the film with cool blues for outdoor and present scenes, and with warm red flames indoors and in flashbacks. This results in a dazzling look that will be imprinted on your memory, together with the excellent production design that makes the El Royale feel like a real, lived in, rundown motel. There’s also the film’s soundtrack, composed of ‘60s songs that perfectly set the mood.
Note that I still haven’t mentioned Chris Hemsworth, who is prominently featured on the marketing campaign for the film. The reason is that he arrives late in the film as a third act ace in the sleeve. He plays dangerous hippie Billy Lee, who likes to walk through heavy rain with his abs exposed and acts like a typical charismatic yet psychopathic cult leader. His storyline ties in with another character, Boots (Cailee Spaeny), in exactly the way you start to expect long before his introduction.
Hemsworth’s shredded, gyrating, charismatic Charles Manson type may be fun for some, but the sudden introduction of an over the top, shirtless Australian makes the film shift focus from being a thriller about people hiding secrets to an over-the-top bloodbath in a change in tone that’s too big and too quick, without feeling justified.
Bad Times at the El Royale starts promising, with interesting characters, great set design, and quick, witty dialogue. But by the time the film turns bloody, you will stop caring, since you have seen this before a million times. You will want to run for the door, begging the night man to let you leave early.
Bad Times at the El Royale hits theaters Friday, October 12.
|The Good||The Bad|
|Cinematography is mesmerizing||Hemsworth is wasted in a forgettable villain role|
|Set design feels lived in||Some characters disappear or die before they get to truly shine|
|Promising start with witty dialogue||Narrative structure hurts the initial premise by over-complicating story|