Synopsis – Seven strangers, each with a secret to bury, meet at Lake Tahoe’s El Royale, a rundown hotel with a dark past. Over the course of one fateful night, everyone will have a last shot at redemption – before everything goes to hell.
My Take – Unlike most marketing gimmicks now days, don’t let the trailer of this fool you into actually believing that it has given away a clue as to what the film’s synopsis is actually about. Here, director Drew Goddard just like his previous film, Cabin in the Woods, has crafted an equally unpredictable little multi starrer which is a love letter to all of sorts Quentin Tarantino films. While his 2012 horror comedy was an open deconstruction of the slasher genre, this film too can be considered a deconstruction of the Tarantino template if it weren’t essentially lacking in irony. By mostly plays it straight, director Goddard allow the film to function as an homage to Tarantino and his many imitators, rather than a parody. And even though this template became familiar enough to warrant parody, it turns out that a latter day straightforward addition to the genre is actually a welcome thing.
Whilst it doesn’t quite hit the memorable notes of those Tarantino greats – lacking the razor-sharp banter and not achieving the same level of unbearable tension, it does make for one hell of a mystery, where basically anybody could get killed at any moment. With an all-star cast, the acting is solid from start to finish, the structure of the film feels fresh and simulating, with non-linear storytelling and scenes from multiple perspectives, though the pacing may end up dividing the audience. While some will walk out of the screening in awe and continue talking about the beautiful cinematography, the masterful cast, and the maniacal concepts, others, may find director Goddard‘s story sluggish. Yet, I applaud Goddard’s ambition, even when it overreaches.
Yes, the film is bloated and might’ve functioned better as a punchy bit of Neo-noir. But it’s rare for a genre film to feel so sweeping and inventive; with The Cabin in the Woods being a prime example. This is a story where the many plot machinations are in service of grander thematic points. There might be too much going on, but as the final act descends into all crazy, director Goddard is at least trying to be different.
Set in 1969, the story takes place at the El Royale hotel, a once-ritzy establishment straddling the border between California and Nevada, it offers gambling on one side and creature comforts on the other. But its glory days are in the past, as pictures on the wall of famous visitors like Marilyn Monroe and Frank Sinatra are gathering dust, the only food is whatever is left in the Automat, and the solitary bellhop, Miles (Lewis Pullman), who now handles everything from the front desk to housekeeping to bar-tending.
However things change when on a single day a bunch of strangers show up and check into the hotel: Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges), a marble-mouthed priest with a spotty memory who seems intent on renting a particular room, Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo), an aspiring singer looking for a practice space before a crucial gig in Reno, Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm), a traveling vacuum-cleaner salesman and Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson), a cowboy-boot-wearing stranger with a bad attitude who also has her tied up younger sister, Rose (Cailee Spaeny), as her luggage. While each one of them has a grim reason to be at the hotel, everything goes to hell once Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth), a charismatic, frequently shirtless cult leader shows up and decides to give everyone one last shot at redemption in his own demented way.
There are plenty of other intriguing elements at play here. Just when you think you understand what’s happening, something else will come and destroy any preconceived notion you had. In elaborating on his ensemble’s backstories, director Goddard furiously mixes in the sins of the Vietnam War, the tawdry legacies of the Kennedy and Nixon administrations, the looming specter of widespread drug addiction, and the dark side of the free-love movement. Some of it feels seamless, and some of it seems shoehorned in as one of the best characters exits too quickly, while the lesser interesting one dominates in the last hour. With each character given their own dedicated chapter, this gives ample time to who they are, why they are at the El Royale, and what is possibly at stake for them. We see as each of these stories interweave with one another, done in a Pulp Fiction-esque way where certain plot points are re-seen through various perspectives. Voyeurism plays a big part in this film as it diverts our gaze to areas we shouldn’t be looking, and does the same with these nosy characters. Whilst it doesn’t quite hit the memorable notes of some of Tarantino‘s greats, it does make for one hell of a mystery.
Having turned the horror genre on its head with the weird and ingenious The Cabin in the Woods, it’s understandable to expect that director Goddard might do something similar here with the crime thriller. Instead he gives his interpretation of a Tarantino film, complete with measured pacing, loads of dialogue, multiple character perspectives on the same scene, and a climactic bloodbath to rival The Hateful Eight. Every room at the El Royale gets its own dedicated segment of the film, complete with a Tarantino-esque title card. Just like Quentin Tarantino, director Goddard revels in messing with timelines, with each new story shedding light on the ones that came before. The film most evokes is Tarantino’s recent effort The Hateful Eight, a post–Civil War Western that threw eight strangers into a remote cabin and had them bounce off one another, though the film doesn’t have the nasty streak that film had, but it’s similarly wrestling with the death of the American dream, just in a more melancholy manner.
The sort of balancing act they all must perform — making you wonder whether what you’re seeing is genuine or subterfuge — makes the first half of the film feel like an Agatha Christie–style thriller, in which a crowd of mysterious strangers are brought together and a crime occurs, even as it’s seeding the philosophical reflections still to come. Yes, as the plot continues to thicken and it becomes harder for anyone to imagine leaving the hotel, the film also turns theological, or at least philosophical. Who is bad? Who is innocent? Does it matter what we believe? And what really makes us who we ultimately are? The film packs a lot of ideas and concepts into its run time, and thankfully the chaos is controlled.
It’s an appropriate kind of viewpoint to be taking, given this film is immersed in its late 60s setting and surveillance is a big topic on its mind. It’s not just the muscular cars and the fashion sense and the hotel rooms’ decorations that are telling of this time, but also the common themes of the Nixon era such as spying, the deceitfulness of the country, and a cultural aimlessness that results in an ungodly violence. Certainly, those who enjoyed the 2012 film should lap this up; for a writer/director who has his name all over a bunch of high profile titles (Buffy, Lost, World War Z, The Martian, the Cloverfield films and Deadpool 2), it’s strange to think that this is only his second directorial effort. For a sophomore writer/director feature, it’s pretty damn good; it’s got style and it’s got swagger.
But as so much is packed into a single film, it inevitable that some of it just doesn’t work. At one point, the storytelling turns nonlinear, with the same moments shown a bunch of different ways, and it’s not clear it adds much to what the film is trying to say. The same goes for flashbacks that fill in backstory for some of the characters — you can see how both techniques might make parsing the plot a little easier, but in spelling out the details, the film loses some of its allusive punch. And while doing so the film tends to outstay its welcome with a 140-minute running time. While the film has a clever plot construction, it needed quite some trimming and streamlining to help the story flow better. Despite all that there’s a strange charm to the film, which comes mainly from its excellent cast.
As always, Jeff Bridges chews everybody off the screen, and shares a great chemistry with Cynthia Erivo, who provides the beating heart and wounded soul of the film with a voice to die for. Dakota Johnson finally manages to blow away some of the painful memories of her role in the 50 Shades of Grey series by giving a much more nuanced performance. Jon Hamm brings his ‘Mad Men’ charm along with a dash of great comedic timing and steals the show early on. Chris Hemsworth also gives us something that we haven’t seen from him, a complete effortless yet sinister performance. While Cailee Spaeny is alright, it’s Lewis Pullman, actor Bill Pullman‘s son, who manages to portray his range of emotions and the turmoil the best. Nick Offerman also makes for a welcoming cameo. On the whole, ‘Bad Times at the El Royale’ is an incredibly captivating and deeply weird thriller which despite being overly long manages to be fun, cool and entertaining.
Directed – Drew Goddard
Rated – R
Run Time – 140 minutes