Bad Times at the El Royale – Film Review by Kevin C. Olohan
Writer/Director – Drew Goddard
Producer – Drew Goddard, Jeremy Latchum
Starring – Jeff Bridges, Dakota Johnson, Jon Hamm, Cynthia Erivo, Chris Hemsworth
When I first saw a trailer for Bad Times at the El Royale I thought to myself: “A new-noir mystery caper starring Jeff Bridges as a priest? Sign me the hell up.” Expectations were cautiously high and I’m immensely pleased/relieved to say, this is a film that delivers the goods.
Set in 1969, the movie follows a group of strangers during their stay at a post hayday novelty hotel on the border between California and Nevada. The El Royale used to be a booming location (we are told by Jon Hamm’s charmingly expositional vacuum cleaner salesman, Seymour Laramie Sullivan) but following the loss of their gambling license the previous year, business has evaporated. Now the only people staying in the hotel are the Salesman Sullivan, the priest Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges), the singer Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo) and the criminal Emily Summersweet (Dakota Johnson). Of course, nothing is what it seems, and they all have a secret, none more so than the hotel’s concierge Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman), who is the hotel’s only remaining staff member.
You get the feeling very early on, that this is going to be like a cross between The Shining and a game of Cluedo, and you wouldn’t be wrong. In fact, those familiar with Drew Goddard’s brilliant directorial debut The Cabin in the Woods, (which he wrote with Joss Whedon) will notice an uncomfortable similarity in a reveal towards the end of the first act. Which is ironic given that Cabin is a satire on predictable tropes in Horror movies. Thankfully, this works in the movie’s favour, as every predictability is subverted. There are several genuine surprises throughout the film, in both the sense of jumps and plot developments. By the end, you’ve given up trying to guess the logical conclusion, which leaves you to fully enjoy the very strong final act (which entirely belongs to Chris Hemsworth’s Charles Manson inspired cult leader, Billy Lee).
It’s a wonderful ensemble, particularly in the breakthrough performances of Cynthia Erivo (Who won a Tony for The Colour Purple) and Lewis Pullman, but ultimately, no one can touch Jeff Bridges. He brings genuine emotion, gravitas and ‘grit’ (I’m sorry) to a movie that could have easily just been surface level style over substance. Every time he’s on screen you feel you’re watching a better film, and this film is good, but Jeff Bridges is just in a better one.
Aesthetically the movie is gorgeous. Seamus McGarvey’s cinematography and Michael Giacchino’s score really capture the neo-noir vibe beautifully. And it’s important that this El Royale is viewed as such. It is a caper in every sense of the word. Fun, violent and occasionally ridiculous. It’s cool. And like anything cool, it doesn’t try too hard to be cool. The only slips are when the movie infrequently takes itself too seriously. It does so with the two massive cliches of the “You’re never gonna make it” scene, and the Vietnam flashback, neither work and both are a little too silly. Also, The film runs at 141 minutes, which didn’t bother me, but may bother some. There is some minor pacing issues two thirds of the way in, which did make me check my watch once, but the final act really saved the day.
Overall, Bad Times at the El Royale is a lot like going out for a few glasses of whiskey: It’s definitely not good for you, but is far from the worst thing you could be consuming. And at least you’ll look and feel cool while your doing it.
In cinemas October 12th.