Everyone has a secret, but they’re not always as convoluted as this…
With Bad Times At The El Royale we get a slick and entertaining exercise in cinematic tropes, trickery and noirish non-linear storytelling that would make the likes of Quentin Tarantino proud, which also on occasion gets a little too cute for its own good with its bag full of sly cinematic, historical and pop cultural references.
It’s a fateful night on the board of California and Nevada as seven strangers, each with a secret to bury, just happen to intersect with each other on this night at Lake Tahoe’s El Royale. Well past its former glory days, the El Royale also has her share of secrets to keep. As these strangers interact with one another and get glimpses into each other’s stories, an unexpected twist puts a damper on all their plans for redemption, which they can only hope haven’t been shot completely to hell.
In many ways a spiritual sequel to Writer/Director Drew Goddard’s previous film, Cabin In The Woods; Bad Times At The El Royale is dripping in film noir tropes from top to bottom while be coated in a neon Day Glow buzz. It looks great, with a top draw cast but the material draws itself out a little too long with only a moderately satisfactory conclusion.
Goddard certainly has no problem crafting a visually compelling film and he does so in spades here with a classically seedy backdrop that is drenched in rain, shadow and some very well placed light. He draws us in by building a world where we just can help but take a peek at what is around that next corner. With music from the great Michael Giacchino and cinematography from Seamus McGarvey they all know exactly how to capture that film noir vibe, making a place that exists in history but not necessarily on any kind of actual map.
The narrative is admittedly overstuffed with historical references to the 60’s and plays out a little too cute at times as it seems that every five minutes has a veiled reference to anyone from Charles Manson to Phil Spector to John F Kennedy. Sure he’s trying to loop a lot of things around to give the location of the El Royale some meaning but they try just a little too hard as a little less could have worked just as well with the end product.
As this film straddles the razor’s edge between smart and a little silly what ultimately brings this over the goal line is the quality of the ensemble.
Jon Hamm leads the way in the opening minutes as he plays the dapper yet motor mouthed Laramie Seymour Sullivan who’s more than just a slick vacuum salesman while Jeff Bridges pastor of lapsed faith is a little more lapsed then anyone realizes. Both men are great character anchors for a good bulk of the narrative. Dakota Johnson captures the essence of femme fatale hippie on the run pretty well while Chris Hemsworth is really great and over the top and swarthy but undeniable charismatic cult leader Billy Lee.
The real star in all of this however is Cynthia Erivo as Darlene Sweet, basically channelling the career life arc of Darlene Love in this movie. Sure it’s not original but it’s sure as hell compelling as Goddard unleashes her extensive musical theatre background to allow her to sing the hell out of some of the classics of the time. Here and in the upcoming Widows we see a leading lady in the making as she has the poise and presence to command the screen no matter who she is working opposite of.
At the end of the day, we can’t deny that Bad Times At The El Royale is a hell of a lot of fun and a genuine treat for any hardcore film fans to see these people play in a genre like this. However, unless you’re fully committed and aware of the experience that this film is throwing you into, it just has a few too many moments that drag out a little more then they maybe should have. It wants to shoehorn 60’s conspiracy, a classic soundtrack and politics in the grey areas that film noir plays in. It’s fun but it just doesn’t always work.