Bad Times at the El Royale makes good on its promise

by James Robins / 22 October, 2018
RelatedArticlesModule - Bad Times at the El Royale movie

Four enigmatic guests check into a decrepit hotel in Bad Times at the El Royale. It’s not going to end well.

Straddling the Nevada-California border is the El Royale Hotel, once a playground for Rat Pack crooners, rouged starlets, and conniving presidents. Now, on the eve of the 1970s, it’s collapsing into a decrepit artefact.

A single employee remains, the stammering teenager Miles (Lewis Pullman). One stormy afternoon, he checks in four guests. Jon Hamm plays a travelling vacuum cleaner salesman with an unconvincing Dixie accent (just listen to his “accoutrements”). Jeff Bridges lends his ever-more-syrupy voice to a bewildered priest. There’s an on-the-road soul singer (Cynthia Erivo), and a flare-clad rebel drifter (Dakota Johnson). The only thing is – none of them are what they seem.

Pulpier than the brain matter that will soon be splattered over kitsch wallpaper, Bad Times at the El Royale is a heady cocktail of neo-noir, outlaw western and voyeur thriller. Comparisons will no doubt be made with Quentin Tarantino, though writer-director Drew Goddard (The Cabin in the Woods) has a surer grip on the genre. His dialogue is not so grating or littered with gratuitous obscenities.

The promised bad times take a while to arrive. This is a slow burner, clocking in at two hours and 20 minutes. But the length has a point. The maze Goddard constructs for us must be solved. Partly, the film relies on a sense of impending carnage: that something nefarious might occur, but from who or what direction it might come, you’ll never know. Twists hinge on swift and sudden moments of violence, gouts of blood that upturn expectations and set the film on different courses. (At my screening, there was an audible shout of disbelief towards the end as tangles kept piling up.) And not unlike Rashomon, it bends and doubles over itself.

What it’s all leaning towards is a survey of America about to be rocked by a post-1960s hangover: despondent hippies, Manson-ish cults, J Edgar Hoover, racial tension, Vietnam, Nixonian dirty tricks. This is the molten lava bubbling away under the volcano.

You would expect that the late introduction of Chris Hemsworth’s gyrating torso would be enough to hold the intrigue as Bad Times hurtles towards extreme ends. Yet the inevitable gonzo shootout feels like a betrayal of the earlier, meticulously crafted suspense. Checking in to the El Royale was a thrill, checking out a nightmare.

IN CINEMAS NOW

★★★1/2

Video: 20th Century Fox

This article was first published in the October 27, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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