El Royale with cheese.
Drew Goddard shook the horror genre with his twisted deconstruction in 2012’s The Cabin in the Woods, a gloriously self-aware gory romp that transcended many’s expectations, and has evolved into a fan favourite. He’s back with Bad Times at the El Royale, a Tarantino/Rodriguez inspired twisty turn ride through a single night at the titular hotel, full of crafty strangers and moderately wild happenings.
The film brings together seven people at the El Royale, a rundown bi-state establishment which co-exists in both California and Nevada (to stay in the former costs $1 more). These include Jon Hamm’s openly sexist cleaning salesman, Cynthia Erivo’s hopeful singer, Dakota Johnson’s wildly enigmatic loose cannon, and Jeff Bridges’ goodhearted priest. But as their stay together goes on, shady secrets emerge and their lives come crashing together.
We begin with an unknown man (played by Nick Offerman) entering a hotel room, checking the windows, taking off his jacket, and generally just taking a minute to himself. He then proceeds to break open the floors, burying a bag – which we can only assume is full of money – before putting the room back together again. He then waits, and waits, until a chap at the door. He sheepishly checks, but opens it with a sort of assured swing like it was an okay decision. As he walks away from the open door, the man behind him blasts him with a shotgun, blood splattering the screen as a result.
It’s a thrilling opening from Goddard, not thrilling in the sense of a rollercoaster, but just completely captivating, and this is down to one thing in particular – Panavision. Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey has opted for the use of super wide lenses when framing much of the movie, and the opening sequence is shot in a single, edge-to-edge view of the whole room, and it is very effective. You really feel like you’re watching it happen, as if you’re there behind a window that only you can see through. Funnily enough, that very sensation manifests itself into the plot soon after.
We’re then thrown forward 10 years later, still at the hotel, where Erivo and Bridges’ characters meet. Bridges is Father Flynn in an excellently fractured performance, which is also a pretty great nod to Tron if it was intentional. Soon the main plethora of cast members meet, but there’s just something missing from their tango. Hamm is on fine form in these scenes, cheeky and incredibly rude but retaining that sort of rugged charm that gets him away with murder. But there’s fairly lengthy chatter about similar things over and over again, and that’s a trait of the picture which plagues it throughout. Goddard, also now writing, is so in love with his setting and his pawns in the story that perhaps hasn’t been as sharp as he could have, therefore losing the whippy, snappy, electric back-and-forths that make the whole thing feel a bit more alive.
As such it is much, much too long; if it was cut to just over the 120 minute mark, perfect. But it runs close to 150 minutes, a long time to be sitting if you’re not whole-heartedly engaged with the plight of your seven mysterious residents. That being said, there are some delicious turns throughout; one, which has been in the trailers, is the hotel’s use of two-way mirrors to spy on the guests. A really enchanting sequence sees Hamm’s character exploring behind these mirrors, seeing the different guests getting up to different things in their respective rooms. Most strikingly of all is Cynthia Erivo’s haunting rendition of the Isley Brothers’ ‘This Old Heart Of Mine’, which plays over the entire sequence, shot seamlessly in an apparent single take. McGarvey and Goddard’s work here from a filming perspective is masterful, by far one of the most well-shot movies of the year. The dreamy, wide tracking shots, whether they’re inside the hotel or across a flowery field, all land perfectly, and really add some class to an otherwise fairly pulpy affair.
There’s plenty of Erivo’s absolutely sublime singing on offer, often used to stunning effect in several set-pieces, such as one in which she sings ‘You Can’t Hurry Love’, or another in which she sings ‘Unchained Melody’. But outside of that, she brings a layered confidence to the role which really impresses alongside some of the big hitters. Johnson is fairly underused, a shame considering her talents as showcased, surprisingly, in the Fifty Shades series and the upcoming Suspiria. Lewis Pullman plays the nervous hotel manager, and is relatively captivating throughout, although his character arc goes in a direction that I definitely didn’t expect but didn’t necessarily fully engage with. The standout cast-member is without a doubt Chris Hemsworth as the malevolent Billy Lee, a cult leader who sweeps up young girls who fall under his spell, and claims them to be his property. After a stint of playing nice guys and heroes, its refreshing to see him play a really despicable human, but Hemsworth brings a dangerous wit and attractiveness, making it all the more understandable how someone would be willing to devote their life to him.
It’s a dirty story on how, despite what people always say, things won’t necessarily be fine. But in a film which feels like a spin on the genre in which films like Pulp Fiction, True Romance and The Hateful Eight reside, there’s just a little spark missing. A sense of something a bit greater, more in-tune with the groove of the tune. There’s a part in the middle where it really rolls into the episodic structure to great effect, but it can’t quite hold that snappy momentum. It does feel like an offshoot of The Cabin in the Woods but it just isn’t quite as much fun. Although, considering how beautifully it’s shot, how alluring the soundtrack is, the mostly excellent shows from a really well-casted ensemble and the ravishing production design, the failings in the storytelling can be forgiven to an extent. It sits on the edge of greatness, it just isn’t quite willing to take that leap to elevate it to something more.