Review: Bad Times At The El Royale

Director: Drew Goddard

Stars: Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo, Jon Hamm

And lo, Drew Goddard, director of The Cabin In The Woods, finished watching Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight and thought to himself, “Well, I could do better than that.”

That’s probably not what happened, but it certainly comes close to capturing a little of what Bad Times At The El Royale offers; a devilishly indulgent slice of time-hopping, character-led pulp fiction with a fondness for non-specific 70’s nostalgia with a 60’s hangover… and 50’s aesthetics. Wait, when is this set…?

Following a blistering opening which establishes that hoariest of old tropes – the bag full of money – we’re introduced to the El Royale; a seedy little run of rooms that sits dead centre on the California/Nevada border. Father Flynn (Jeff Bridges) rolls into the parking lot at just about the same time as fledgling singer Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo).

On entering the lobby they find the place immaculate but almost deserted. Staff are conspicuously absent. Instead they are greeted by Southern vacuum salesman Laramie Sullivan (Jon Hamm). Presently they are assigned quarters with the assistance of squirrelly bellhop Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman). But as each new guest retires to their respective rooms, the film splinters into their separate tales of intrigue…

Goddard’s The Cabin In The Woods delighted in pulling the rug out from under the viewer, and there’s a keenness for the same that carries over here. However, El Royale never quite goes the same distance, opting for several smaller “aha!”s rather than one big genre-buster. Its worth baring that in mind for there’s a lot of stories to cover and a languid 140 minutes allotted for it.

With plenty of characters to define (I haven’t even gotten to Dakota Johnson or Chris Hemsworth), there’s a curious duality to how El Royale plays out. The hotel rooms and lounges feel gigantic, and with characters rarely gathered together in one place, the film feels curiously empty and spacious. Yet, at the same time, back stories are cliff-noted so as not to derail the zigzagging narrative. The result is a long, airy film that feels like it was initially intended as a Netflix series and has since been retooled to movie size.  Further aping Tarantino, the film is divided by title cards into chapters, and one can’t help but wonder if these weren’t intended to be 45 minute installments in their own right.

As a result of this structure, El Royale is pitted with peaks and troughs. Time in the company of Bridges and Erivo is always well spent. He brings that craggy charm that’s become his schtick of late, while she has a voice and presence to be reckoned with. Elsewhere, once you separate the “aw shucks” lingo from the Don Draper hairstyle, Hamm makes for a charismatic sleuth, eager to uncover what’s been going on at this mysterious hotel.

Everyone, of course, is hiding something, and that’s another carry over from The Cabin In The Woods. Both films share a motif of voyeurism (Goddard is obsessed, it seems, with two-way mirrors), but beyond this is a rather suspicious outlook on human nature. Father Flynn isn’t all that holy; Laramie Sullivan doesn’t just sell cleaning products. Even the film’s most sympathetic character isn’t wearing her own hair. Goddard enjoys playing with assumptions. See Hemsworth, playing quite pointedly against type following his recent Marvel shenanigans.

Most of the time this theme holds and allows us a succession of revealing flashbacks (and an out-of-nowhere Xavier Dolan cameo). But its a trick that Goddard doesn’t get away with right to the end. The last one in particular allows him a deus ex machina far less satisfying than anything you’ve been given ample time to guess at.

Alas, El Royale doesn’t quite hold for its ambitious running time. The final act is, frankly, a little interminable, as Goddard’s film apes the problems that beset The Hateful Eight. With a lot of goodwill stacked up in his favour, his story descends into a series of violent acts each more wearisome than the last. As with Tarantino, past form has you holding out for that ace up the sleeve. And, as with Tarantino, he might be bluffing.

Things truly come off the rails with a very worthy but awkwardly shoehorned speech directed at the Donald Trumps of the world; Goddard eager to use his film as a platform to soapbox his political affiliations. I agree with the man’s point, but there’s a time and a place, and where it’s positioned in El Royale really isn’t it.

It’s tempting, following The Cabin In The Woods to try to see Bad Times At The El Royale as some kind of meta exercise and assume some greater level of genre deconstruction is going on here. There are nods to noir, the Coens, a legion of hotel flicks and the pulpier end of the whodunnit spectrum, sure, but this is a different film to Goddard’s last. He’s not repeated himself. The trick this time is only the film’s sincerity.

This is Goddard’s overstuffed, overlong ode to simply goin’ to the movies.

Score:  3

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