First off, my apologies for not posting these past few weeks. As previously mentioned, I was on a work assignment that took up an inordinate amount of time. As such, I have a bit of catching up to do, which is why the first review back is for a film that debuted three weeks ago. Bad Times at the El Royale is a fun bit of stylish neo-noir action, with a heavy dose of homage, and is most certainly worth seeing if you can find it. There’s a lot of studio-backed fare and Oscar bait already crowding the theatres, so this one is quickly on its way out, but I do recommend seeing it if possible.
In the tradition of films like Identity and Vacancy, this movie’s main set piece is a hotel. Straddling the border between Nevada and California on the outskirts of Lake Tohoe, the El Royale – which as a side note seems weird to me, because you’re literally saying “the the Royal” when you phrase it that way – is a novelty tourist trap well past its prime, to the point that there’s only one employee, and half the rooms aren’t even maintained. The set itself is a wonderfully retro piece of design, worthy of attention next year. The red line dividing the hotel into its two literal states an alluring vision of Heaven and Hell, depending on which side you’re on.
We are also treated to a star-studded ensemble cast, each with their own dark secret converging at the hotel. Jeff Bridges leads as an impostor priest named Daniel Flynn, coming to find a stash of hidden money from his days as a bank robber. Jon Hamm plays an undercover FBI agent masquerading as a vacuum salesman, tasked with removing surveillance equipment that has been used to blackmail political opposition. Tony-winning stage actress Cynthia Erivo makes her big screen debut as a struggling backup singer on her way to a run-down Reno gig after refusing the sexual advances of a record executive, costing her a shot at the big time. Dakota Johnson, finally free of Twilight fan fiction, is a hippie kidnapping her sister (Cailee Spaeny of Pacific Rim Uprising) from a charismatic cult leader named Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth, Thor abs and all). Caught in the middle of it all is Miles, played by Lewis Pullman (son of Bill Pullman, best known as the son of Steve Carell’s Bobby Riggs in Battle of the Sexes last year), the sole employee of the hotel and witness to some serious shit.
There aren’t too many twists and turns in the film, but rather a deliberate slow burn. Every scene, every action, is given meticulous attention and a lot of breathing room. Director Drew Goddard (Cabin in the Woods, Cloverfield, etc.) keeps us all in just the right amount of suspense, wondering what might happen next, dropping hints and clues that honestly aren’t really relevant to the proceedings, but add that much more to the atmosphere. The opening sequence, where Flynn’s ill-fated borther (Nick Offerman) hides the stolen money, is a master class in static camera and jump-cut editing that sets the tone for the film perfectly.
There’s a clear influence of Quentin Tarantino in this work, from the centralized location that almost feels like it could be a stage play (Hateful Eight), to the powerful black character (Jackie Brown), to the non-linear story structure which treats every character’s backstory like a separate chapter (Kill Bill), to the closeup expository conversations over food (Pulp Fiction), to the cavalier execution of side characters (Reservoir Dogs). Trust me, it’s palpable, to the point that every time I heard someone mention the El Royale by name, I half wondered if it would come with cheese.
Now, there’s not a damn thing wrong with referencing one of the masters, especially Tarantino, as the majority of his own work is homage. The difference is that Tarantino adds something to his dedication. He references elements and characters, but he also makes them his own. With Goddard’s Semi-Hateful Seven, I just didn’t see that. Trust me, this was still a lot of fun, but I didn’t see anything that made the leap from “Man I love me some Tarantino” to “Hey, Mr. Tarantino, you inspired this original piece of art from me. I hope you like it!” Mind you, Goddard’s under no obligation to do any of that. I’m simply saying that if he was aiming for that level of artistry, he came up a bit short.
But still, there’s so much to like about this film. The acting is first rate, the set is beyond cool, and this film makes the best use of licensed music I’ve seen in a while. Set in 1969, there’s a great deal of classic rock and Motown strewn throughout the film, which in itself felt like a subtle clue, as the first song is “26 Miles” by the Four Preps, and the next one begins with a mention of 25. It almost made me think there was a countdown to something, but that ended up fading away. In addition to the catalog, Cynthia Erivo takes her Darlene Love character (seriously, the name is Darlene Sweet, it’s a clear reference) and treats the audience to some wonderful singing, from hits like “This Old Heart of Mine” and “You Can’t Hurry Love.” One of the climactic scenes (this one more a reference to Boogie Nights than Reservoir Dogs, but there are elements of both) is set to Deep Purple’s “Hush,” which creates a wonderfully suspenseful ambiance.
If you’re looking for the next great noir thriller, this may not be it. But even so, it’s a wonderfully stylized take on the genre, with some excellent performances and a really compelling use of a catalog soundtrack. Still, it’s more than understandable if you’d rather wait for this to come out on Blu-Ray and just watch Pulp Fiction instead.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What director would you homage if you were making a movie? Could you be hypnotized into a hippie murder cult because of Hemsworth abs? Let me know!