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.