Movie Review: "Bad Times at the El Royale" (2018)
I’ll admit it and you should, too- the first time you saw the trailer for Bad Times at the El Royale it grabbed your undivided attention. With a diverse and talented cast, period setting, and great tunes, it looked like Mad Men drank the Tarantino Kool-Aid and vomited crime-thriller madness all over the screen.
For the record, I mean that in a complimentary way.
After an opening scene that gives us a man hiding the proverbial pot of gold at the end of the rainbow (in the form of a cliched MacGuffin), we meet three weary travelers as they arrive at the once-famous El Royale Hotel that sits famously on the California-Nevada border. Already on the scene is Laramie Seymour Sullivan (John Hamm; AMC series Mad Men), a comically chauvinistic vacuum salesman. Next we meet Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo; Widows), a lounge singer who’s in Reno for a less than stellar gig. She’s soon joined by Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges; The Big Lebowski), an old priest who just needs somewhere to crash for the night. They’re soon joined in a squeal of tires and bad language by a fourth: bad attitude hippy Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson; Fifty Shades of Grey). The help finally appears. His name is Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman; The Strangers: Prey at Night), and he’s as awkward and unusual as his guests. They’re all hiding secrets or looking for something…and that’s before all hell breaks loose with the arrival of Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth; Marvel alum, THOR!!) and his ridiculous, gyrating shirtlessness.
Writer/Director Drew Goddard (Cabin in the Woods, LOST) is great at getting you to look this way and think a movie or show is all about one thing, then hitting you with something else. Bad Times at the El Royale was no exception. I was surprised at the genuine emotion to be found in a setting that is clearly a love letter to Quentin Tarantino. It helps that just the right people were cast for their roles, with more chops on display than a Southern barbecue.
The cinematography is flat-out gorgeous and hits you right in the face with the very early 1970’s. It’s the most Mad Men-looking thing since the show ended. The hotel is a hell of a set and a character unto itself; I’d stay there on the regular if I could. The whole movie is slick, polished, and stylish as fuck in the best possible fashion.
Despite an interesting premise, though, it’s not really anything we haven’t seen before. Strangers meeting in the middle of nowhere with a secret to bury / axe to grind / treasure to find is nothing new- the classic Identity comes to mind as being VERY similar (down to the weather and the hotel). There’s a definite vibe of homage to Bad Times at the El Royale. I’m not knocking it for that, but I wouldn’t call it ferociously original.
It runs a tad long at 2 hours and 21 minutes. You will feel that, especially in the final act. Countering that, though, is the message that comes through. It’s nearly meta in the “been there, done that” moral relayed by Darlene (who has the best story arc in the film). She’s tired of men like Billy Lee, and we are too. I think everybody is by now. It’s pretty relevant shit.
Still, the too-long ending gives us the cherry at the center of this vintage chocolate covered confection: you can’t escape your demons and your trauma. At some point, you have to turn and face them. The interplay between Bridges and Pullman will ensure that you have something in your eye. It will also ensure that more of Hollywood will (or at least damn well should) be taking notice of Lewis Pullman. He killed it. Hard.
Sure, it’s a little long in the tooth and occasionally tries to get too clever and cool. That’s okay. The look, the sound, the cast, and the finish are more than enough to make up for it. You won’t be disappointed if you pop in for a stay at the El Royale.
So…California or Nevada?