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USA 2018
Directed by
Drew Goddard
141 minutes
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4 stars

Bad Times At The El Royale

Synopsis: A group of strangers staying at a once-popular hotel-casino near Lake Tahoe, California which is built directly over the Nevada/California state line find themselves caught up in a nightmarishly violent situation with no apparent way out.

Fans of the Guy Ritchie/Quentin Tarantino schools of pulp crime fiction shouldn’t miss Bad Times At The El Royale.  Not that writer-director Drew Goddard’s film is in any way derivative of those auteurs. Rather it takes the ingredients of the genre – violence, sex, money and fatal desperation and re-works them into a fast-paced, super-stylish, wickedly clever combination of the kind that many film-makers aspire to but only a few manage to pull off so well.

Beginning with a prologue in which we see an unidentified individual hide a carry bag under a motel room’s floor boards the narrative jumps forward ten years to 1969 when four strangers check into the El Royale - Jeff Bridges’ Catholic priest, Father Flynn, Jon Hamm’s cocksure vacuum salesman, Laramie Seymour Sullivan, Cynthia Erivo’s Darlene Sweet, a stressed-out young black woman who dreams of being a caberet singer and Dakota Johnson’s hippie-chick with a bad attitude who signs the register offered to her by Lewis Pullman’s desk clerk (and, as the only employee on site, everything else) “Fuck You”. Using their room numbers as chapter headings, Goddard then shows us who these people are and how their lives will intersect in unexpected and bloody ways.  To do so he follows first Laramie Sullivan’s story, then retraces his narrative steps to tell those of the other characters gradually taking us to the film’s climax when a new character, Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth), a Charles Manson-like psychopath arrives on the scene and begins playing a deadly game of roulette.

Goddard’s script avoids familiar characterizations and pat plot developments at the same time as it deftly contextualizes the story in real time and space to 1969, the year that the peace-and-love ‘60s died and Richard Nixon and the forces of reaction took over the reins of power in America.

At the same time that the characters are fresh with Jeff Bridges giving a particularly engaging performance as an old-school crim whose mental faculties are beginning to corrode, Cynthia Erivo standing out as an aspiring R&B chanteuse and Lewis Pullman touching as the traumatised Vietnam vet desk clerk, the real beauty of Goddard’s script is the way in brings together these disparate individuals into a single narrative space without predictability or contrivance, but rather with a kind of credible spontaneity. It is ironic then that it is only at that third act point that the pace stalls with too much time spent on Billy Lee’s ’s narcissistic posturings. We could have well done without his campfire oration. Fortunately Goddard pulls us out of this dead-end for a table-turning show-down and an empathetic resolution capping the whole thing off with a somewhat incongruously upbeat ending.

If Goddard’s writing and directing are first class (amongst other works he wrote Ridley Scott’s mega-successful The Martian, 2015, whilst his first and only other film as writer- director, The Cabin In The Woods, 2011, was well received), Martin Whist's production design is glorious, his El Royale an almost Lynchian idealization of ‘60s architectural and interior design well served by Seamus McGarvey’s cinematography. Topping off the entertainment is a juke-box full of contemporary R&B chart-toppers, some of them strikingly well sung by Erivo in character.

Somewhat surprisingly, particularly when one compares the seemingly universal praise for Bradley Cooper’s middle-of-the-road interpretation of A Star is Born, released at the same time, Bad Times at the El Royale has been received quite coolly in its homeland.  If you’re one more for the margins, however, there really isn’t a question about which should get your film-going dollar.

FYI: The El Royale is based on the famous Cal Neva Resort and Casino that was once owned by Frank Sinatra.




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