Writer/Director Drew Goddard has thrown everything but the kitchen sink into “Bad Times at the El Royale.” There’s no doubt he had a lot of fun with this movie, but will the average movie-goer?
Drew is known mostly for his writing that has covered a number of properties in the J.J. Abrams and Whedonverses. 2012 marked his directorial debut with the rather incredibly fun “The Cabin in the Woods.” Six years later, “Bad Times at the El Royale” is only the second time he’s directed a film. But oh, what a film it is. The story is a melting pot of 1960’s lore and tropes, with the main character being the El Royale itself. Loosely based on a real hotel owned by Frank Sinatra & Dean Martin, the El Royale is built in a unique location, perfectly bisected by the California and Nevada state lines. As the hotel’s singular employee Miles, (Lewis Pullman) explains, there are unique benefits to each side, although the California side costs a dollar more. The camera, in a voyeuristic stance, one by one introduces us to the handful of guests who have arrived. Darlene (Cynthia Erivo) is a single black woman, who for some reason, carries her own bedding with her. The men she meets in the lobby believe they are treating her in a progressive, modern manner, but make many insulting presumptions about her. Also checking in, but looking a bit lost, is Father Flynn (Jeff Bridges), an old minister of an undetermined faith. First there, but last to secure a room is slick-talking-Texas-Salesman Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm). An off-putting character whose charm is dwarfed by his ego. Finally, a tough looking hippy who refuses to leave her name in the register (Dakota Johnson) appears, claims a room, and runs off just as quickly.
Immediately we know two things: Not a single person at this location is who they claim to be, and Goddard is having a blast. Jeff Bridges shares the same last name as his character in both Tron films, and John Hamm is once again playing a salesman, the role that secured his fame. After this lengthy introduction, we are provided episodic backstories to each character. Each jumps back in time a bit and as they begin to overlap in time the whole story begins to reveal itself. Films that use this technique can sometimes become obnoxious in their repetition, but Goddard skillfully avoids that pitfall. While the film feels a tad long at times, it’s incredibly rewarding to see each piece fall into place. Another welcomed aspect is the chance that any character could die at any time. Too many films follow what Ebert referred to as the “Economy of Characters”, in which you can tell which characters are most important (and therefore will live the longest) by the size of their paycheck. At the El Royale, anything can, and does, happen. It’s jarring when one of your favorite characters is suddenly decreased, but it’s also exhilarating to know this story is playing by its own rules.
Visually, the film is gorgeous. The odd colors of the era are punctuated by neon lights in a manner that looks far more satisfying than you would assume. The lighting and camera work fit the voyeuristic and slightly dirty nature of the story. These are the kinds of people you want to peek in on but know you shouldn’t. Goddard also has a lot of fun playing with reflections, but literal and metaphorical. To reveal more would give away key aspects in the story, but once you are aware, it’s enjoyable to see what he’s doing. A monologue my Manson-esque cult leader Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth) at first seems to be character-defining banter but is actually a key to what this story is all about. Who decides what is good or bad, and which side will you choose? Will you stay in California or Nevada? Or will you choose to walk straight down that dividing line towards your fate?
“Bad Times at the El Royale” may stretch your patience at a few points, but it’s certainly a ride worth taking.