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Bad Times at the El Royale Movie Review

Bad Times at the El Royale (2018) movie poster Bad Times at the El Royale

Theatrical Release: October 12, 2018 / Running Time: 141 Minutes / Rating: R

Writer/Director: Drew Goddard

Cast: Jeff Bridges (Father Daniel Flynn), Cynthia Erivo (Darlene Sweet), Dakota Johnson (Emily Summerspring), Jon Hamm (Laramie Seymour Sullivan), Cailee Spaeny (Rose Summerspring), Lewis Pullman (Miles Miller), Chris Hemsworth (Billy Lee), Nick Offerman (Robber), Mark O'Brien (Larsen Rogers), Manny Jacinto (Wade), Alvina August (Vesta Shears), Jim O'Heir (Milton Wyrick)

 

After years of writing and producing on cult television series including "Buffy the Vampire Slayer", "Alias", and "Lost", Drew Goddard followed his showrunners into feature films. His first screenplay was 2008's Cloverfield, a surprisingly good monster movie with timing on its side. It found the window in between The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity in which first-person found footage was a novel device.
It seemed only a matter of time before Goddard made the leap to writer-director and he did that on his second feature script, 2012's acclaimed The Cabin in the Woods, a horror movie he co-wrote with accomplished fellow "Buffy" alum Joss Whedon that made clever use of horror movie tropes. Although a modest performer at the box office, Cabin was revered by many, which made Goddard's next film all the more anticipated.

In the years since, Goddard was one of four credited screenwriters on the supposedly but not actually doomed World War Z and the lone credited scribe on 2015's wholly embraced and widely Oscar-nominated The Martian. He also created a new "Daredevil" TV series for Netflix. And now we finally get Goddard's follow-up act to Cabin in Bad Times at the El Royale, a mystery-thriller set at the end of the 1960s at the invented titular Lake Tahoe hotel.

Salesman Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm), Catholic priest Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges), and backup singer Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo) all await checking into Lake Tahoe's El Royale hotel.

As its inefficient bellboy Miles (Lewis Pullman, Bill's son) eventually, dutifully points out, the El Royale was built on the California/Nevada border and gives guests equal opportunities to stay in either western state. Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges), an aging Catholic priest whose memory is starting to fail him, chooses a room in Nevada. So too does Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo), a back-up singer from Indiana with an upcoming gig. Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm), a talkative southern salesman who isn't what he claims, insists on occupying the honeymoon suite. Which leaves terse free spirit Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson) in a different room.

A dialogue-less prologue set ten years in the past establishes the quiet El Royale as a site of intrigue: one of the rooms has stolen treasure buried under its floorboards by someone who soon winds up dead. Which room is the loot in and who is it of greatest interest to? These are questions the film takes its time to answer, as it toys with viewers with an only slightly nonlinear Pulp Fiction-esque design, complete with title cards identifying the different rooms and guests the segment will be focusing on.

Bad Times is supremely compelling as it introduces us to the characters, including the setting that might as well be the star (it is titular, after all). Once a thriving locale, the El Royale lost its gambling license and soon after its luster. Now, it has a single young employee doing everything from checking in guests to bartending, none of it in a timely manner. The place harbors many secrets, including a Cabin-esque corridor where two-way mirrors allow for covert surveillance. One of the guests is an FBI agent reporting directly to J. Edgar Hoover. Another is mixed up in a kidnapping that never quite adds up. A third seems to be gearing up for a kidnapping or something even worse.

Rain pours down on Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm) on the January 1969 evening in which "Bad Times at the El Royale" is set.

I can't say much about any of that, for this is a movie that needs its audience to remain in the dark
until it's ready to enlighten them. Cynics might view the design as a ploy to drum up multiple viewings, but the fact stands that this does invite a second watch more than the vast majority of films.

Handling both writing and directing with no credited help for the first time, Goddard crafts a rich, complex, and atmospheric universe. It is reminiscent of Quentin Tarantino's The Hateful Eight, but a version of that which didn't inevitably have to lead to a deadly bloodbath that few if any would survive. That is Tarantino's idea of a final act, but it doesn't have to be and after disarming us with the truly surprising early offing of a focal character, Goddard seems to delight in keeping these characters alive and delaying each metaphorical reveal of the hand of cards they've been dealt here.

Unfortunately, the film cannot sustain the early brilliance it displays. Once Chris Hemsworth wanders into the picture as a charismatic cult leader who proudly, consistently displays his abs with a wide open shirt, the movie has to start answering the many questions it has raised and it loses its grip on you as it does. It remains highly watchable, absorbing, and full of creative surprises, but its violent conflict is inevitably less thrilling than the psychological games its first hour invited your mind to play. At two hours and twenty minutes, the movie is slightly longer than it needs to be. One area of obvious concern: the prolonged scenes in which Darlene sings. You get very quickly that Erivo has a voice on her, but the movie grinds to a halt as it lingers on that voice with only tenuous links to the narrative. In other ways, Bad Times is quite satisfying musically, as it makes use of a golden age of rock and soul with fitting use of enduring tunes like Edwin Starr's "Twenty-Five Miles", The Box Tops' "The Letter", and The Four Tops' "Bernadette."

So absorbing is the film in its first 90 minutes or so that you can easily imagine it being mined at greater length in an hour-long television series (and I say that as a compliment, even as someone with almost no appetite for such a thing these days). In its second half, it only takes a small step down from first-rate entertainment and probably to its own commercial benefit because a wide release movie practically demands some kind of action and primal excitement to have a chance at performing well at the box office. This is a good enough movie to hope it does just that. Goddard's creativity is an asset that the business needs and one which feeds off of big, in-demand actors from Bridges and Hamm down to Johnson and Hemsworth, a privilege he's never had before (Cabin was filmed back in early 2009, with Hemsworth being cast as Thor in the final two weeks of production). Opening across from the buzzy Neil Armstrong biopic First Man and Goosebumps 2, with A Star Is Born and Venom presumably still drawing crowds on their second weekend, Bad Times is definitely not a sure thing commercially. But it's potent enough artistically to hope it finds an appreciatve audience.

Related Reviews:
Written by Drew Goddard: The Cabin in the Woods Cloverfield The Martian World War Z
Now in Theaters: The Sisters Brothers The Old Man & the Gun A Star Is Born Venom
Jon Hamm: Baby Driver Million Dollar Arm | Jeff Bridges: Hell or High Water The Big Lebowski Thunderbolt & Lightfoot
Dakota Johnson: A Bigger Splash How to Be Single | Chris Hemsworth: Thor: Ragnarok 12 Strong
The Hateful Eight Bates Motel: Season One Inherent Vice Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas Vacancy

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Reviewed October 7, 2018.



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