Bad Times at the El Royale

In the wake of Pulp Fiction’s monumental success after its release in 1994, a slew of imitators came along. Some were good (Doug Liman’s Go), a few were memorably bad (Things To Do In Denver When You’re Dead), and most were forgettably bland. Even 24 years after Pulp Fiction, there are still movies produced which clearly take cues from that groundbreaking movie. The newest title from writer-director-producer Drew Goddard, Bad Times At The El Royale, is the latest film to take inspiration from Tarantino’s opus.

The El Royale was once a lavish if gimmicky, hotel. See, it sits along the border of Nevada and California, and guests who check in can choose to stay in either state. Years ago, all the Hollywood bigwigs, political powerbrokers, and business tycoons converged here to gamble, drink, and live it up. However, ever since the establishment lost its gambling license, it has seen a steady decline in clientele.

Now, on a random day in 1969, four strangers converge on the lodging for very different reasons. Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm) is a vacuum salesman who intends to spend beyond his means during his business trip (the company is paying for it). Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges) is off to see family. Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo) is heading to Reno for a gig singing. Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson) wants everyone else to piss off and leave her alone. Moreover, to accommodate all the guests is the only staff on the entire premises, Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman).

Bad Times At The El Royale, Goddard’s second feature-length directorial effort after the brilliant Cabin In The Woods, is told non-sequentially. After meeting all the main players in the lobby of the opulent inn, the viewer then follows the story via room numbers. The honeymoon suite, room one, is where we learn that in actuality, Laramie is FBI agent Dwight Broadbeckm sent in to retrieve surveillance equipment. He finds multiple sets though, which sets off a chain of events that affects every guest’s goals.

“…on a random day in 1969, four strangers converge on the lodging for very different reasons.”

Room five is a flashback, showing how Darlene Sweet never quite became a lead singer and why she takes 6 a.m. shows at a pancake house. Father Flynn is staying in Room four, and he is really the convicted armed robber Dock O’Kelly searching for lost heist money. Staying in room seven is Emily, who has kidnapped her sister Rose (Cailee Spaney), from charismatic yet unhinged cult leader Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth).

I did not much care for del Toro’s The Shape Of Water. One of the reasons why is because it had to include everything happening in its period setting. Oh, it’s 1962, so here’s a heaping dose of racism! Also happening at the same time is extensive discrimination against LGBTQ people, so let’s toss that in there! Hey, the Cold War, can’t forget that! Focus movie, focus. Goddard does a similar thing with Bad Times At The El Royale.

The difference though is how organic the inclusions feel here, versus the forced way those elements stop the story in del Toro’s Oscar-winning movie. The Cold War is briefly mentioned here, as a possibility for the extraneous surveillance items found and that is it. One line acknowledges Russia and the story move on.

In real life, the Manson Family murders took place in 1969, the year this movie is set. The cult family depicted here become significant players in the end, and are therefore integral to the plot. Issues such as racism, sexism, and the Vietnam war are also looked at in one way or another, but all come through plot or character building. As such, the movie never feels bloated, despite the almost 2 and a half hour runtime, every scene and bit of line adds something relevant to the proceedings.

“…led by one of the best, most talented casts assembled for any movie this year.”

Goddard seamlessly switches back and forth between each throughline, but if the entire cast were not up to snuff, it would all be for naught. Happily, everyone does a bang-up job. This is the best performance of Johnson’s to date, as she genuinely inhabits the role of the tough yet caring Emily. Her love for her sister is evident in every scene and carries the movie. Jeff Bridges is understated and sells the heartbreak his character is going through exquisitely. Jon Hamm is a bloody delight in his quirky role and turns from the more comedically inclined Laramie and the more direct FBI agent believably.

However, Bad Times At The El Royale belongs to Cynitha Erivo, Lewis Pullman, and Chris Hemsworth. I have never seen Erivo in anything else before, but she is remarkable here. Her singing is incredible, but even more impressive is the hard edge she fronts and then seeing it slowly shed away. Her performance is endearing. If she’s not nominated for a best-supporting Academy Award for the heart-to-heart between she and Bridges in the car alone, I will be disheartened. Hemsworth gets to be as nuts as wants and is having a ball doing so. When he pits two of his followers against each other for the chance to bed him, he takes such glee in the ferocious fight it is unnerving. Pullman, as the hotel employee, brings the dramatic goods and his final scene will break your heart.

Bad Times At The El Royale is creepy and mysterious in all the right ways. The tension builds as the non-sequential story allows the pieces to fall into place in mesmerizing fashion. All of this is led by one of the best, most talented casts assembled for any movie this year. Goddard has crafted a masterpiece through and through, with this easily being one of the best films of 2018.

Bad Times At The El Royale (2018) Written and directed by Drew Goddard. Starring Jon Hamm, Jeff Bridges, Cynitha Eviro, Dakota Johnson, Lewis Pullman, Chris Hemsworth, Cailee Spaeny.

10 Gummi Bears (out of 10)

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