Tuesday, 16 October 2018

Review: Bad Times At The El Royale

Bad Times At The El Royale
Cert: 15 / 141 mins / Dir. Drew Goddard / Trailer

Now and again, a trailer comes along for a movie which looks like it should be fun, but seems nonetheless achingly self-aware, a little too knowing. There appear to be too many central characters, all dialled up to 11 and trying to upstage one another. A script which seems to comprise lines designed for quoting and repetition out of context. A jukebox soundtrack of retro tunes compiled by someone who thinks they're hip but only listens to Radio 2 (and uses words like 'hip').

And you remember the glut of substandard, straight-to-video fare in the mid-1990s which followed Tarantino's breakout, where form was valued over function and the guy who made the tea on the set of Pulp Fiction would be hired to make the tea on the set of whatever-new-heist-movie so that the poster could claim some causal link to greatness. And you decide you'll probably watch it anyway, but with guarded reservations.

Anyway, I needn't have worried (and nor need you). Bad Times At The El Royale is glorious.


In the final throes of the 1960s*1 on the state line between Nevada and California, sits a hotel. A kitsch monument to the faded glamour of America's golden age, the El Royale is still a going concern, albeit a waning one. The building has its secrets, as does the lone member of staff appointed to oversee its smooth running. And when four separate guests arrive on the same evening, they're each bringing baggage in every sense. As their paths intertwine, it becomes clear that some guests will be checking out sooner than others...

My word. From its opening scene, the audience knows this is going to be a meticulously paced stay. We begin with a solitary locked-off shot of the interior of a motel room. A nameless man enters alone, hides the film's macguffin and awaits his contact, all without a single word of dialogue. It feels like we're watching a stage play, an aesthetic that continues after the lone title-card, and characters arrive at the eponymous venue, checking in by systematically signing their names in the register.


Rhythm and ritual reverberate heavily throughout Goddard's screenplay, from the the strained courtesy of receptionist Miles delivering the faded hotel's check-in welcome speech, to the methodical process of residents tearing through their rented rooms. The influence of that filmmaker mentioned above is felt particularly strongly, especially as it's the beats between the players' words which convey the meaning and betray their true intentions. But on a dark and stormy night with a guest-list full of secrets, there's as much Agatha Christie in here as there is Quentin Tarantino.

The narrative deepens in the second act where we begin to see key events replayed from the perspective of different characters and learn more of their backstories. There are no wry, second-guess-baiting reveals at The El Royale, but the story uncovers its developments slowly and purposefully, waiting for the right moment of theatrical effect.

And true to its stage ambience, this film is carried by standout performances from John Hamm, Lewis Pullman and above all Cynthia Erivo (and director Drew Goddard is certainly getting his money's worth from that actress's outstanding ability as a singer). Even Jeff Bridges forgoes his usual affable mumbling to bring a turn which is as touching as it is terrifying. Although it features a relatively small central cast, there's not a single dud (or even ordinary) performance in the whole film*2.


As Goddard works with cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, the shots in El Royale are works of art in themselves, a counterbalance and symmetry running through the film like the state-line bisects the premises. Characters' hidden sides are revealed and then flipped back again, as we slowly learn that both of these facets make up who they really are. And we don't have to like who they may turn out to be, so long as we accept it. You are your inner-self and your outside-persona; no-one knows the face in your mirror like you do.

Is it style over substance? No. The style is the substance. Don't be fooled by the pronounced slickness and louche trappings. Bad Times At The El Royale is a surgically assembled, note-perfect masterpiece.

Also, I might be slightly in love with Dakota Johnson as she stalks around the secret corridors of a sleazy motel with bootcut jeans and a shotgun. My word...

So, what sort of thing is it similar to?
Pulp Fiction, Identity, Murder On The Orient Express, Drive Angry.

Is it worth paying cinema-prices to see?
It is.

Is it worth hunting out on DVD, Blu-ray or streaming, though?
It is.

Is this the best work of the cast or director?
It's in the top half of the CV, that's for sure.

Will we disagree about this film in a pub?
Only if you're wrong.

Is there a Wilhelm Scream in it?
There isn't.

Yeah but what's the Star Wars connection?
Level 1: The voice of Captain Cormac out of The Old Republic is in this.

And if I HAD to put a number on it…

*1 Mate don't, the script doesn't say, I don't think. It's either the very late 60s or early 70s. Nixon is on TV (who was elected President in '68, although I'm not enough of a historian to say if the footage we see is from before or after that point) and the script specifically references Hush by Deep Purple (from the 1968 album Shades Of Deep Purple). So y'know, it could be a bit later, or there could just be a 1968 or '69 calendar on the hotel wall and I didn't notice first time round. [ BACK ]

*2 Even though Chris Hemsworth has arrived with his charm and without his shirt as instructed, he perhaps doesn't quite have the knife-edge gravitas required by his role as a pseudo hippy cult-leader. He's an engaging screen presence rightly enough, but Brad Pitt had this sort of thing down far more tightly in Kalifornia. [ BACK ]

• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
• Yen's blog contains harsh language and even harsher notions of propriety. Reader discretion is advised.
• This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed here represent my own thoughts (at the time of writing) and not those of the people, institutions or organisations that I may or may not be related with unless stated explicitly.

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