Noir Of The Hour: A Review Of 'Bad Times At The El Royale'
Film director Drew Goddard is back with Bad Times At The El Royale; and if his Cabin in the Woods was his smart attack on the horror/thriller genre, this latest one takes on the noir/suspense films that initially made their mark in the 1950s and ‘60s. As with Cabin In The Woods, El Royale is an intelligent, puzzle-box of a film. It’s rambunctious, filled with sly, off the wall humor; and is both extremely satisfying, and somewhat frustrating, at times. But this early on, I’ll state that if you love filmmaking and story-telling, this is the one to catch this week!
There’s a prologue to kick off the film filled with noir tropes, to put us in the right frame of mind (and for those who’ve seen the film, they’ll appreciate my use of the word ‘frame’). Then we fast forward, ten years later, to a 1969 at the same location, the El Royale motel that sits right on the borderline between Nevada and California. Enter the seven strangers who are either guests at the motel or work there; and much like the motel that has a split personality, these seven all have dark deep secrets of their own, and personalities that redefine ‘split’.
What follows is a steep roller coaster ride of hidden agendas, shifting allegiances, conspiracies, depravities, and criminal behavior. This is a 1969 when the Vietnam War was raging, when the Hollywood Charles Manson cult murders happened, and when Motown ruled the radio airwaves—so expect a host of cultural references, singalong tunes, and a righteous ball of confusion. There’s so much Goddard is cramming into this film, it could be easy to be overwhelmed by how things fly by the moment he starts upping the pace and ante of the story.
But at over two hours, there is something of a ponderous start to the proceedings. Goddard can be indulgent, and can be too smart or playful for his own good—and these are the points when the film can be frustrating. But when he’s in his groove, the film is spectacular, and we can’t take our eyes off the screen.
I read that several members of the cast took pay cuts to be part of this film and keep it within budget. And it’s easy to see why they made that choice; given that the story-telling is so 'un-Hollywood', and it’s evident they’re having so much fun. Jeff Bridges, Chris Hemsworth, Jon Hamm, Dakota Johnson are the bigger names involved in the project; and my personal standouts are Cynthia Erivo and Lewis Pullman. Hemsworth must have been having a blast, as he takes on the role of the evil, charismatic Charles Manson-type figure, Billy Lee.
I’m not going to spoil this review with reveals beyond that mention of Hemsworth’s role. Yes, this is an uneven film, and it could have used some editing; but at a time when much of Hollywood can either be categorized as big budget formula, or indie slow reveal statements, it’s good to find there is a middle ground. El Royale, true to its straddling the California-Nevada border, is that in-between kind of film, and it’s interesting, and fun to watch.
Lead photos via @ElRoyaleMovie