Bad Times at the El Royale

Bad Times at the El Royale (2018)
★★★★ / ★★★★

“Bad Times at the El Royale” has more in common with independent cinema of the ‘90s, particularly Quentin Tarantino’s earlier works, than it does with empty, flashy, and impatient suspense-thrillers of today. It is written and directed by Drew Goddard with terrific energy, rousing creativity, and perspicuity in untangling the numerous and complex character motivations. What results is a highly entertaining non-linear picture in which the viewer is given the gift of possibilities. It is established early on that just about anything can happen—and it does—so we wonder whether right can prevail over wrong, if good can trump evil—or at least a semblance of these opposing categories.

A Catholic priest (Jeff Briges), a singer (Cynthia Erivo), a vacuum cleaner salesman (Jon Hamm), and a hippie (Dakota Johnson) check into the titular motel, situated between a literal state line of California and Nevada, run by the sole employee Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman). Over the course of the night, these individuals would reveal themselves to be something else other than how they wish to be perceived. Great care is put into each character. And just when we think we have them figured out, the propulsive film screeches to a halt and introduces extraneous but fascinating flashbacks.

I admired the picture’s willingness to take its time. Clocking in at almost two-and-a-half hours, there is never a dull moment. When characters speak, we are inspired to listen because he or she, one can argue, is a certain type of archetype. And yet it is not so obvious that the work becomes more of an academic exercise than a visceral experience. Like other great films, subtext is there should one wishes delve into the work further. When characters do become silent, it becomes a moment of rising apprehension. The tease of whether or not violence might occur at any moment is executed with glee and verve. It is clear that Goddard has an understanding of neo-noir thrillers, particularly in how to use every ticking second to keep viewers’ expectations up in the air. Imagine betting a large sum of money on a coin flip—and the coin flip being in slow motion.

Goddard gives his work a sense of freedom. I claim that the work could have been only eighty minutes in duration if it had undergone liposuction—wall-to-wall suspense and thrills from the first minute until the moment the end credits begins. Had this been the case, it would have been a significantly lesser experience because the beautiful details are actually embedded in the fat. I loved moments when characters simply sit down, share a drink, and converse—not because it furthers the plot but because it helps our understanding of the players. There are even moments when the camera remains still to capture how a woman sings in addition to how well she sings.

Performances are just about impeccable across the board. Bridges as an aging man with memory issues is equally compelling as Erivo who portrays a black soul singer who made a difficult but moral choice of taking the much longer route toward possible financial success. Notice how the camera’s movements match that of Bridges and Erivo’s styles of acting. It adapts when only one actor is on screen and then again when both of them must share a frame and connect. Also notice how the established rhythms are shattered when the dastardly Billy Lee, played with great fun by Chris Hemsworth, sashays into the frame nearly two-thirds of the way through the story. The mesmerizing, devilish dance would make Hitchcock proud.

3 replies »

  1. ok, i just watched it earlier. That clerk is played by Bill Pullman’s son. So, I liked it okay; there were some elements I really liked, but other elements that were just too Hollywood’ish. You know i like movies that feel authentic to real life, and there were parts in this that felt like they trying to be cute and slick, and that always comes across as pretentious…

    I don’t like movies that force music to be played over a scene to try to convey a certain mood; let the STORY convey the mood; when you play a song over the scene you’re taking away from the story; if you’re going to incorporate music into your film, it needs to be IN the story; so, for example, at the beginning when the black woman pulls up to the hotel in her car, the movie is blasting a song to try to set the mood; that’s annoying; if the music had been blasting from her car stereo then they would be okay b/c it comes from within the story, and conveys something about her character. See the difference?

    So, with that in mind, they actually did implement music into the story naturally, and that worked. When John Hamm was walking behind the 2-way mirrors, and turned on the mic. and she was singing over the the things he was discovering; that was chilling in a way…

    And when she and Jeff bridges were in the lobby/diner and she played music on the jukebox, that works, as well, b/c it’s coming from within the story. I just don’t think movies should place a song over a scene to try to set a mood b/c you come across pretentious and cutesy. It can work in montages at times; like “You’re The Best Around” fit perfectly to the Karate Kid montage showing highlights of the tournament fights; and the song actually fit into the movie; yeah, it’s a cheesy song, but it fit like a glove AND it actually ADDED to the movie…

    Now, of course movie scores work well being played to convey emotion. I like those. So, stick to that, and leave the original records for scenes where the songs are alive within the actual scene itself…

    I thought some of the characters were inconsistent; like Dakota Johnson shooting John Hamm, and coming across like a real heartless thug type, but then later on seeing she does have a heart. I’m all for complex characters, but you do have to have some consistency. I think her shooting Hamm’s character was not true to who she turns out to be later; like, why would she kill him? Then it turns out later she is a caring sister trying to save her sister from a cult; so…you shoot people? See how this doesn’t add up? The way she shot Hamm was cold and she felt no remorse; caring people (like she was) are not that cold to murdering to someone; she should have had some type of reaction. They wrote her that way to try to be slick and stylish; like the way she peeled into the hotel parking lot when arriving; that was so dumb and unnecessary; like, WHY would she want to draw attention to herself? It’s inconsistent writing; your characters need to be consistent…

    I thought Chris Helmsworth was really good in this. I liked when the woman sang while being tied-up; see, that is how music sets a mood b/c it came FROM within the scene; and then the way Chris abruptly stops her in the middle and says “I’ve heard better” was a good moment…

    But then the writers got dumb again; while the clerk was shooting Chris’s cult members, they didn’t even shoot back, or even point their guns for that matter; very unrealistic. And after Chris had been shot, the clerk goes over to the sister as she is grieving over Chris, and then he even tries to speak to her; of course you know she’s going to go after him; in real life, i think he would have known it was too dangerous to approach her, and she might try to retaliate; i think that’s common sense. So, for him to approach her and then get stabbed by her was just a way for the writers to wrap up his character arc, and wrap up the story.

    But overall, i think it was pretty good. It had some really good scenes, and then some really bad ones, as well. i finished the whole thing!! lol.

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