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Good times with ‘Bad Times at the El Royale’

October 16, 2018
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As someone who considers himself a reasonably savvy moviegoer, I like to think that I’m not bad at discerning what the deal is going to be with a movie before I see it. That’s not to say that I think I have every plot point or aesthetic choice nailed down; I just mean that I’m good at predicting some general qualities from limited information.

Good, but far from perfect.

For instance, I was pretty sure I knew what I was going to get from “Bad Times at the El Royale” despite the fact that the publicity run-up wasn’t particularly thorough. The thing is written and directed by Drew Goddard, after all – he’s a prolific writer and producer, but the last time we got the writer/director double-dip, he gave us the exceptional meta-horror “The Cabin in the Woods.” I figured I was going to get something similar to that movie, a noir/neo-noir deconstruction-cum-parody.

But rather than a comment on a genre, Goddard – along with a fantastic ensemble cast – gives us a particularly well-executed example of that genre, one tinged with Goddard’s weirdo sensibilities and unique aesthetic sense. It twists and turns with abandon and is utterly remorseless in the sacrifices it makes in order to advance the narrative. It’s brutal and visceral and darkly funny – not quite what I expected, but a hell of a time nonetheless.

A man checks into the El Royale Hotel in 1959. He moves with fearful purpose, preferring the shadows to bright lights. He tears up the floorboards and hides a pair of satchels beneath before repairing the floor. Another man arrives. The first man invites him in, only to be shot dead by his visitor.

A decade later, some weary travelers attempting to check in are discovering that the El Royale’s heyday has sadly passed. They wait in the lobby – vacuum cleaner salesman Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm, “Tag”), soul singer Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo, “Widows”) and Catholic priest Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges, “Kingsman: The Golden Circle”) – hoping for a room for the night.

Eventually, hotel employee Miles (Lewis Pullman, “The Strangers: Prey at Night”) – apparently the ONLY employee – turns up to check them in. As he’s doing so, another stranger arrives, a young woman named Emily (Dakota Johnson, “Fifty Shades Freed”) who is behaving like someone who has something to hide.

Not that she’s alone, but it turns out that EVERYONE has something to hide. While Emily is tied up in some unsavory business involving her sister Ruth (Cailee Spaeny, “Pacific Rim: Uprising”) and the charismatic cult leader Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth, “Avengers: Infinity War”), it turns out that neither Laramie nor Father Flynn is being entirely forthcoming about their real reasons for being at the El Royale. Miles has some dark secrets of his own … as does the El Royale itself.

Who are these people? Why are they here? And what will happen if someone else gets in the way of them getting that for which they’ve come? It’ll be bad times indeed.

There’s a quality to “Bad Times at the El Royale” that’s a little tough to articulate. Imagine a Wes Anderson movie that was 95 percent less twee and really leaned into the darkness and that’s kind of close. The aesthetic is oddly reminiscent of Anderson, loaded with wide shots of vivid and/or meticulously detailed locales where actors are rendered tiny by the scaling of the shots and their surroundings. And there’s a specific musical sensibility is woven through the film, rendering the soundtrack vital in a way you rarely see in contemporary offerings.

But make no mistake – this movie is its own thing. It’s a bit on the long side – 141 minutes – but it doesn’t really suffer for that. Goddard has a wonderful knack for constructing intricately-connected narratives that make longer runtimes more palatable. It is unexpectedly violent in spots, unafraid to be abrupt in the choices that it makes. That combination does something great – it ensures that the viewer can’t be certain of anything. No matter what it is, Goddard seems willing to pull the trigger (pun intended). He’s a hell of a filmmaker – let’s hope we don’t have to wait another six years for him to direct again.

“Bad Times at the El Royale” is an ensemble piece in the best kind of way. There is no star in this movie – there are seven major players here, all of whom are gifted with multiple outstanding moments. Bridges brings his grizzled gravitas to Father Flynn, while Hamm is all smooth talk as Laramie Sullivan. Johnson gives Emily an engaging edge; here’s hoping we get more of that from her in the future. Erivo, Spaeny and Pullman all do strong work. And Hemsworth is phenomenal, giving Billy Lee a smug swagger that embodies the toxicity bubbling just beneath his significant surface-level charm. But really, the performances across the board – even the smallest ones – are great.

This is a weird, wild movie experience. It marries blunt brutality with subtle intimacy in a manner you don’t often see. It is smart and strange and not at all like what you might expect. But that’s OK. You’ll still have a good time with “Bad Times at the El Royale.”

[5 out of 5]

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