Review: Bad Times at the El Royale
Written and directed by Drew Goddard (Cabin in the Woods), Bad Times at the El Royale is the kind of movie you are not quite sure what to expect when you sit down to watch it, but after the first scene, you know all too well the kind of film you’re about to get into, and it excites you.
Dissolving from the darkness of the screen, the film opens up in a motel room. We’re somewhere in the 1950s. You can tell because the room just has that look that sends your mind on nostalgic trips back to other movies and images you’ve loved that came from that era and also because it has a radio instead of a television that carries the spice channel for an extra fee. The frame is planted firmly at the center, encompassing the width of the room from the bed on left to the radio and desk on the right, like a stage. The camera never moves once; not when a mysterious gentleman (Nick Offerman, his face disguised by shadows and distance) walks in and rests his luggage; not when he digs up the floor boards and drops in a bag of money; and certainly not when he’s shot to death by another shadowy figure. This sequence is patient, stylistic, and the lengthy start of it is composed in a single long take, cutting only when he flips on the radio, and only then continuing to cut at the perfect moments, creating an upbeat vibe that hooks you from the start. And don’t worry, this isn’t even close to the only secret the El Royale is hiding.
We leave the room after this and thus, we are then properly introduced to the grand, fashionably dead and gone setting known as the El Royale, an isolated state-themed motel located on both sides of the border between California and Nevada, with each wing of the structure dedicated purely to the state on which it rests. (Consumer beware, there is an up-charge for staying in the California wing and you can’t purchase alcohol on the Nevada side of the lobby.)
At the front desk, four strangers wait to acquire their rooms. Each are distinct in their own interesting ways. Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm) is a boisterous salesman. A 1960s-era, capitalized A-american everyman with a knack for saying things that make you go “….oh” in this day and age, Sullivan is persistent in his need to proclaim his prestigious place in line once, twice, twenty or thirty times more than necessary. Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo), as her name suggests, is a gentle, discreet soul on the surface, but also nests a straight to the point, take charge directness that gets things done when she feels the need arises. Dressed in a priest’s attire is Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges, who, if you remember, also played a character with that surname in Tron). Flynn seems like a nice enough guy, out of place as he is, but scans the motel’s map as if he wants not just a room, but a specific room. We are also quick to suspect his nice guy priest vibe is an act. Finally, there’s Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson), a character of few words, can you guess which ones?
Like the setting itself, all of these characters are hiding secrets of both innocent and nefarious varieties and not all of them are who they say they are. Goddard is especially playful in the way he reveals the characters’ backstories. He doesn’t give it to us all at once, but serves us bountiful tastes that reel us in for more. When he’s ready and the moment is timely, he gives us more. For many of us, film is our drug of choice, and Goddard is happy to be our dealer. He takes enjoyment from it actually. By the end of the film, when we suddenly learn beneficial, borderline dues ex machina-esque information about a character we didn’t think we needed to know more about, we chuckle a little. Not in mockery of the film, mind you. We’re just having fun playing Goddard’s game.
Each character selects and retires to their rooms, all of which are distinct, wonderfully decorated, and colorful in their own way, but they also match the individuals who inhabit them, as if they belong here.
No, there is nothing supernatural about the El Royale, but in some ways, it feels like hell. The majority of the characters are burdened souls who’ve committed a great many sins. They’re thieves, voyeurs, extortionists, and at their worst, killers. Even the most innocent characters are trapped souls, who in some ways still don’t feel out of place here. They are later joined by Chris Hemsworth’s Billy Lee, who dances around them like the devil. (Hemsworth is a surprising antagonist whose character will no doubt draw comparisons to Charles Manson.) Of course, the El Royale is not really hell and even with the image of Bridges disguised as a priest and another character’s desire to atone for his sins, that allegory only goes so far (and has been done a million times before anyway). However, one cannot deny the infernal nature of this diabolical motel, especially when it becomes an inferno.
As evident in the opening sequence, the style of the music and camera work are major driving forces of the film, and embody a lot of what makes this film most enjoyable for the audience. Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey (Nocturnal Animals) uses a fair number of long takes, lengthy tracking shots that sweep around the characters, and moody lighting with lots of red and neon colors swallowed up by the dark, rainy atmosphere. Even the red line dividing the states is pronounced and stark, as if not just to remind us of the borders it separates, but to show us the ominous path pointing straight to a place you shouldn’t go.
Composer Michael Giacchino is surprisingly restrained with his score. He seems to know the film’s musical identity is not with his cues, but with the greatest hits spinning in the lobby’s jukebox (including an effective use of a classic Deep Purple song), and has decided to humbly take a step back. Bad Times at the El Royale is the kind of film that is upbeat about being downbeat. It’s violent, merciless, and quick to kill its protagonists. But every few minutes, a character walks up to the jukebox, selects a song, and naturally, we feel good about it. There’s a good time to be had at the El Royale.