Review: Bad Times at the El Royale

Jeff Bridges gives another master class in acting in a neo-noir film

Bad Times at the El Royale (Zlý časy v El Royale)
Directed by Drew Goddard
With Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo, Dakota Johnson, Jon Hamm, Cailee Spaeny, Lewis Pullman, Nick Offerman, Chris Hemsworth

Strangers meet at an isolated motel in the off season, and not everyone is who they seem. Bad Times at the El Royale creates a complicated retro crime thriller, set in a truly strange motel built exactly on the California –Nevada border.

Writer-director Drew Goddard has extensive experience from TV, including writing episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Lost. His film credits include writing and directing Cabin the Woods, and scripts for Cloverfield, World War Z and The Martian.

His script for Bad Times at the El Royale takes him in a slightly different direction, but many of the elements of an unsettling creepy ambiance, isolation and extreme, explosive violence carry over.

The film boasts a really stellar cast, with the ever reliable Jeff Bridges giving another iconic performance.

The concept of strangers thrown together in a hotel sounds a bit like an Agatha Christie mystery, but actually the plot is quite different. There is no whodunit element. There are mysteries and secrets to be revealed, but the mood is more like a film noir. A dark sense of man-made evil permeates the film, as more of the characters’ true aspects are revealed. It is not a horror film, save for the horror that humans themselves can create.

Virtually every character has some secret or some unstated reason for wanting to be at the hotel.

The clever setting is one of the film’s main assets. A giant red line runs down the center of the hotel’s symmetrical main building, with half in California and half in Nevada. Liquor can be sold only in the California half, but the Nevada half lost its gambling license. This led to the hotel losing its popularity to the point where only stray people stop by on occasion, and the staff consists of one person.

It is sort of like a cross between the Bates Motel of Psycho and the Overlook Hotel of The Shining. Its glory days are in the past, and all it has left is its secrets, some rundown rooms and a classy looking reception area.

The film is structured rather tightly, with overlapping action in different parts of the hotel. One particular incident is seen several times from different people’s points of view, much like Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 film Rashomon.

Jeff Bridges has the central role as an elderly priest facing memory loss. The 68-year-old actor thankfully, at least in this film, doesn’t try to be the romantic lead. He is good at being slightly smarmy, and his priest character does have a bit of an uneasy edge.

Jon Hamm, best known for playing a 1960s ad executive in Mad Men, doesn’t get much chance to push his boundaries. He is a 1960s vacuum cleaner salesman, in the same clean-cut mold.

Dakota Johnson is able to redeem herself from her Fifty Shades of Grey persona and instead creates a tough character seemingly involved in a serious crime. Cailee Spaeny, who was recently in Pacific Rim Uprising, is somehow mixed up with her. She gets to play a spacey but sensual young drifter.

Stage actress Cynthia Erivo, known for her role in the revival of The Color Purple, gives some depth to the character of African American backup singer. It is a large role for a type of character that is usually overlooked.

These characters are like chess pieces that the director moves around. The film does have a bit of an overly contrived feel, as if it is an exercise in staging action and suspense.

There is also a slight feeling that the director wants to outdo Quentin Tarantino at his own game.

But mostly the film succeeds in all the key areas, with a top cast doing lean acting, and a script that isn’t too self-indulgent, at least not too often.

Recently the film Hotel Artemis tried to create its own world in hotel with a futuristic sci-fi setting. It has a lot of good things, but slightly missed out on the cult status is so obviously was seeking.

Bad Times at the El Royale comes together a lot better, making a coherent vision of the 1960s in its limited setting. It is not a classic like Pulp Fiction, but solid enough to find an audience.

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