BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE (2018) – Uneven Opening Gives Way To Intense Second Half

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bad times at the el royale poster

So, are there bad times at the El Royale?

You don’t know the half of it.

BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE (2018), the latest film by writer/director Drew Goddard, takes place at a run down hotel, the El Royale, which sits on the border between California and Nevada, and follows the stories of several guests who all arrive there one night, each with dark secrets. When their lives intersect, all hell breaks loose.

BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE is uneven at times, especially early on, when the stories told are somewhat disjointed, but it’s one of those movies where your patience will be rewarded. It gets better as it goes along, and it finishes strong. Still, it doesn’t entirely work as a complete package. It’s more a series of moments, and it does have some powerful moments, scenes that pack a wallop. You just have to wait for them.

The film is also helped by an excellent cast, with several players delivering outstanding performances. Jeff Bridges, for example, carries the film whenever he’s onscreen, which is a lot, and Chris Hemsworth, who shows up towards the end, steals the scenes he’s in.

It’s 1968, and struggling singer Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo) arrives at the El Royale to find a priest Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges) standing out front looking lost. They strike up a friendly conversation and enter the hotel together to find the lobby empty except for one other person who’s helping himself to the bar, and that’s salesman Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm) who tells them he can’t seem to find any hotel staff.

This opening scene, in which the three have an extended conversation, plays like something out of a dream. The hotel seems to be deserted, yet they’re talking like that’s not so strange. It’s a weird and slow scene, not the strongest sequence in which to open a movie, but like I said, things get better.

The hotel clerk, a young man named Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman) eventually shows up and apologizes for not hearing the bell, and as he does so, another guest arrives, a woman named Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson). Needless to say, none of these folks are simple hotel guests. They have all arrived with an agenda, a story, and through a creative series of flashbacks, we learn what they are all doing there. Yet, the flashbacks are only a small part of the story, as most of the film takes place at the hotel when these characters’ stories intersect, and the less said about their stories, the better. I wouldn’t want to ruin the fun.

And BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE is a lot of fun, in a dark violent sort of way.

Drew Goddard has written a very creative script, which is no surprise, because he’s done this before.  Goddard wrote the screenplays for such films as THE CABIN IN THE WOODS (2012), which he also directed, THE MARTIAN (2015), and one of my all time favorites, CLOVERFIELD (2008). He’s also written a lot for television, lending his writing talents to such shows as BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER (2002-2003), LOST (2005-2008), and Marvel’s DAREDEVIL (2015-2018), a show in which he also serves as the series creator.

With BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE, as both the writer and director, Goddard has created an enjoyable puzzle of a movie. The characters’ stories intertwine seamlessly, helped along by Goddard’s effective use of flashbacks, both from years past and just minutes before. The film shows several events more than once, as seen through different characters’ eyes.

There’s even a Hitchcock MacGuffin, a roll of film containing footage of an unnamed prominent figure, now dead, in a compromising situation. It’s an item everyone wants because of its value.

As I said, the cast is at the top of their game.

The two characters who get the most screen time are singer Darlene Sweet and Father Flynn. Cynthia Erivo is very good as Sweet, and of all the characters in the story, she’s the most straightforward. Her past isn’t so much about a secret, but about a decision to buck the system, to reject the sexual advances of her producer who promised he could make her a star. She decides to make it on her own. Her story really resonates today.

Jeff Bridges is superb as Father Flynn, who does have a secret to hide. Now, since Bridges has had a long and remarkable career, I hesitate to say that this is one of his best performances, because he’s had a lot of those, but let’s put it this way: he’s really, really good. For me, even more than the story, Bridges’ performance is the best part of this movie, and is what I enjoyed most. Bridges’ best scenes are when he talks about and deals with his bout with Alzheimer’s.

Jon Hamm is also very good as Laramie Seymour Sullivan, although his character ultimately has less of an impact than Bridges’ or Erivo’s. For me, the best part of Hamm’s performance was he was playing someone very different from Don Draper on MAD MEN (2007-2015).

Dakota Johnson is fine as Emily Summerspring, but even better is Cailee Spaeny who plays her younger sister Rose, and Lewis Pullman as hotel clerk Miles Miller.  There’s something almost hypnotic about Spaeny’s performance as Rose, a sort of flower child who becomes obsessed with Chris Hemsworth’s Billy Lee, a relationship that leads her to violence and murder. And Pullman starts off as a meek hotel clerk, but his secrets are painful and deep, and his performance gets better as the film goes along.

Speaking of Chris Hemsworth, he has a field day as Billy Lee, this 1960s anti-establishment leader who sees himself as a cross between Abbie Hoffman and Jesus Christ. Throw in a little Charles Manson and you get the idea. Hemsworth fills the character with creepy charisma.

It’s on full display in the scene where he uses an allegory to share his views on war, having Rose fight another young girl while he stands back and watches, asking his followers to observe how he has made them fight while he remains far away from the scuffle and profits from it.

Hemsworth and Bridges are the two best parts of this movie, and their confrontation during the film’s climax is a major highlight.

That climactic scene where Billy Lee holds the characters hostage and uses a Roulette board to play a deadly execution game is a nail-biter and by far the most intense sequence in the film.

However, one major knock against the script, as fun as it was, and as much as I liked it, is it’s not all that believable.  Other than the Alzheimer’s subplot and Darlene Sweet’s plight with her sexual predator producer, there’s not a lot of realism here, and for the most part, I didn’t believe what was going on. For me, this usually spells doom for a movie, but that’s not the case here. I enjoyed all the clever touches used to tell this story, and combined with the phenomenal acting, it made up for the lack of believability.

BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE begins slowly, but it gets better, providing some potent moments while it builds to a satisfying and intense final act.

These are some bad times you don’t really want to miss.

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