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.