REVIEW: Bad Times at the El Royale

For the record, I’d have booked a room in California – never a bad time there.

Sitting on the border between California and Nevada, the rundown hotel establishment, the El Royale, falls into rocky water when a swarm of strangers – a soul singer, an elderly priest, a fiery hotshot and a travelling salesman – take refuge one stormy night for their own mysterious reasons.

From pop culture auteur, Drew Goddard, who was behind the writing of cinematic works such as The Martian, Cloverfield and, his directorial debut, The Cabin in the Woods, whilst also obtaining credits on popular shows including Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and Daredevil, comes the new mystery-laced thriller, Bad Times at the El Royale. A film that invites you into ambiguity with a *nod* *nod* and *wink* *wink* to genre trappings and homages, Bad Times at the El Royale is both the movie you were expecting but also the film you were surprisingly unexpecting; with rich subtext and thematic genius at play, Goddard’s intricate and layered new flick is the film we definitely needed in order to revive the near dead horse that has been 2018 cinema.

On first glance, you would not be mistaken to immediately affiliate Bad Times at the El Royale with an Agatha Christie whodunit infused with the stylings of a Quentin Tarantino venture, as what this film interestingly does is build up fashionable expectations in the first fifteen minutes, only to immediately breakdown genre and narrative conventions in a genius checkmate move. Similar to Goddard’s last film, The Cabin in the Woods, the filmmaker proves his obsession with genre tinkering and expectation shattering to be a notable trait of the director. Bad Times at the El Royale almost purposely lies to you in order to unravel a more fascinating, though hideous, truth on society and sin; working in ways how good cinema should, by allowing the plot to thicken at the same pace as the themes, like trying to complete a near impossible puzzle to marvel at the resulting gorgeous bigger picture. Bad Times at the El Royale dabbles in evil, division and the importance of a choice whilst wearing the façade of an Agatha Christie whodunit infused with the stylings of a Tarantino venture.

Not to tear away from the aesthetically pleasing odes and homages Bad Times at the El Royale has linked to past cinema classics, there is still a lot to visually, and in a story sense, love about this flick. For example, the narrative structure of this film is not surprisingly very much like a Christie-esq, Tarantino joint. The characters are introduced at the beginning as campy archetypes, only to appear almost opposite of said archetypes as the story unfolds, like those within Christie classics like Murder on the Orient Express. The film also obtains an addictively funky style like Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, both in visuals and deep dialogue with non-linear storytelling also implored to make for a more fulfilling story. I mean, heck, this film even has the equivalent of Pulp Fiction’s ambiguous briefcase MacGuffin hidden in plain sight throughout the picture as a roll of film wedged in the centre of some of the character’s main desire. Though interestingly enough, Bad Times at the El Royale more-so occupies the tone and setting predominately of Tarantino’s more recent flicks – the near three year old, The Hateful Eight, and the upcoming, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Channelling the claustrophobic, mysterious, character-driven nature of The Hatefeul Eight and setting it against the world Tarantino seems to currently be building for his 1960s set Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, it really does not feel like mere coincidence that Bad Times at the El Royale so clearly acknowledges the cinema around it. Whereas within The Cabin in the Woods, Goddard made light of the horror genre by unveiling the curtain of clichés to reveal a functioning reason behind genre trappings, what Goddard does with Bad Times at the El Royale is more metaphorical but is still just as pungent.

Bad Times at the El Royale daringly upsets the Christie whodunit and Tarantino modernised neo-noir to spotlight the characters at the forefront of both genres, and how said characters – although being empathetic people at their core with Christie-inspired ‘murder on their mind’ and Tarantino-esq knowledge of the coolest retro music drooling from their lips – are really, at their purest distillery, vessels, or more appropriately personifications of sin of the modern man.

Goddard’s newest onscreen work is built to hit you with a truth that mankind is, and always has been, polluted with the likes of sin. Setting the film in the 1960s, a time of rude awakenings for American society with the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War, the rapid birth of serial killers and demonised cults and the assassinations of people in power, like particularly J.F.K., it’s a near clear reading that Goddard’s Bad Times at the El Royale seeks to spotlight evil as a recurring theme in mankind’s evolution. Goddard looks to eradicate the idea that the groovy 60s and further decades that surrounded it were never the supposed ‘Happy Days’ we as a society now refer to them as. In Goddard’s opinion, there was always sin, there was always evil and never did society thrive in a past time that was inherently good. The characters in Bad Times at the El Royale so definitively inhabit archetypes of sin from the past whether a Vietnam G.I. guerrilla, a Thelma and/ or Louise femme fatale-type runaway, a hardened criminal mastermind or most significantly a murderous cult leader in the vein of Charles Manson. Everybody onscreen points to a nostalgic revaluation of our past selves and how hauntingly they mirror what we are as people in the present.

(Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation 2018)

Enter the casting choices in this film as the performances on play are damn incredible, ushering in Goddard’s vision in the most impeccable ways. Yes, the writing is fantastic in this film as the way each character is given almost equal time to have their back stories and motivations unravel is just ingenious. In particular, Cynthia Erivo and Jeff Bridges shine in both character and performance, possibly erupting as the film’s two greatest highlights. Dakota Johnson, Lewis Pullman and Cailee Spaeny all score their own times to sing and dance, despite my feelings that the three, although great in performance, may have been given the weakest material in character, which isn’t a huge flaw when the writing is so good, but is still a minor negative I had in how their characters were approached in narrative terms – especially Pullman. Jon Hamm is what you would expect Jon Hamm to be… a f*cking legend. Chris Hemsworth, meanwhile, may have just been my favourite part of this film on an entertainment level. Hemsworth’s electric and threatening vibes, encompassing a sexualised Manson family figure really made for some highly memorable scenes. Also, Goddard’s supposed call to cast Hemsworth as a God-like figure in this film after his decade long portrayal as a real God for Marvel, made for an even more endearing and believable take on a character that may have not worked at all in the hands of other actors.

Hemsworth’s delivery of varying hidden religious and philosophical babble sold most of the film’s deeper cuts as returning to Goddard’s personification of 1960s sin in this film, Bad Times at the El Royale not only bashes mankind for our wrongdoings but also offers us the ability to uncover choice in our actions. The 60s may have housed some gruesome misdoings in our society but it also introduced times of love, peace and redemption with activists, hippie movements and summers devoted to love all boiling to the top of a societal surface. A large element of Bad Times at the El Royale hinges on division, a juxtaposition if you will, of warring factions in society. As Hemsworth’s God-like cult leader puts it, life is “a game” and it all starts with “a simple choice” as the film continues to then ask its audience, “what side are you on”? Whether you’re up or down – right or wrong – good or evil – truth or lies – God or no God – appear white or black – or black or red (life or death) – or, in the gimmickiest and literal of them all, reside in either Nevada or California. It’s true that we all consume and produce sin like it’s a product of life, but it’s the choices we make between two significantly separate entities that make us who we are and define us through redemption and forgiveness.

Bad Times at the El Royale is not your ordinary thriller. Sh*t really goes down in this film, even if you’re too blind to see it. Not everyone will like this movie as it is a slow burn and the film does indeed set up for a thriller we never fully get. However, this film is not stupid. It knows what its saying and says it very well. If you’re on the same page as Goddard, I honestly believe you will enjoy this film. If not, Bad Times at the El Royale still exhibits tense and heart stopping moments that really work because the writing and performances so brilliantly bring this film to life. And if all else fails, Bad Times at the El Royale easily ticks cult classic status and can be enjoyed even then for some fields of audiences.

The aesthetic and overall art design behind this film is genius as the cinematography never shies away from unveiling the dark twisted beauty of this flick. The El Royale may almost at first replicate the Overlook Hotel from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining but quickly goes to adopt more Bates Motel vibes from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. In fact, Bad Times at the El Royale owes a lot of its visual style to Hitchcockian cinema with an unhinging creepy element of voyeurism laced within its frames and overall narrative.

I have heard some people call this film unoriginal and ‘more of the same thing’ in comparison to Agatha Christie, Tarantino and even Hitchcock, when you take into acknowledgment the vibes of a peeping-Tom thriller, but honestly, I feel whatever criticism in the vein of such is redundant when speaking about this film. Bad Times at the El Royale is one of the only completely original works 2018 Hollywood cinema has released, for which is not based on real life events, a book, a comic, a TV show or a reboot and instead is just completely its own animal… and that is something to be cherished. Yeah Goddard filters through the ticks and mannerisms of past successful films in similar genres, but that’s what creating art is – taking inspiration and reflecting the artist’s opinions and thoughts on existing things, like other art. We, as a society, have to come to terms with the fact originality is dying in Hollywood with the rise of franchise and brands evolving the way films are made. So when we are gifted with a film like Bad Times at the El Royale, we have to realise this is the purest essence of high budget originality we’re ever going to get again… so bloody enjoy it people!

So yeah, Bad Times at the El Royale has some little problems here and there with the late or ‘convenient’ development of some characters and slow pacing, but all in all, this is one of the most fascinating outings of 2018 cinema we have had so far. Bad Times at the El Royale cheesily, on my part, delivers good times at its signature central establishment. And hey, if you’re not into anything I just said, surely you’ll sign up for this film for the God of Thunder boogying it out as sexy Charles Manson in the summer of love… booyah.

Bad Times at the El Royale is, in fact… Lost Art

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