Bad Times at the El Royale is a rollicking crime epic concerned about the America that inspires it
Tarantinoesque, a word just this past week added to the Oxford Dictionary, is an adjective that draws equal parts dread and excitement from dedicated moviegoers. It holds the promise of all the masterful parts of that director’s craft: a knack for drawing out stellar performances from the world’s greatest actors, a stylish cavalcade of violence and mayhem, and black humor to boot. But it also elicits the fear of cheap imitation, or even an evocation of Tarantino’s lesser qualities as a filmmaker, from his messy handling of cultures to his sometimes patience-stretching dependence upon sprawling narratives and copping the styles of those he worships. Luckily, the phrase is most welcome in the case of Bad Times at the El Royale, writer-director Drew Goddard’s (The Cabin in the Woods) wildly entertaining crime epic that clearly draws upon the heavy influence of Tarantino’s filmography whilst standing in its own right as a tightly crafted, razor sharp exploration of the decadence and hypocrisy of Americana.
Set in the titular El Royale, a once booming lodge split by the California-Nevada border that has regressed from hosting the world’s biggest stars to a budget-friendly shell of its former self, the film follows an eclectic group of strangers whose fates become intertwined over the course of one fateful night at the hotel. Checking in is Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges, Hell or High Water), a former bank robber masquerading as a priest, Seymour “Laramie” Sullivan (Jon Hamm, Mad Men), a vacuum cleaner who isn’t what he seems, Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson, Fifty Shades of Grey), a femme fatale with a dark past, and Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo), a lounge singer struggling to make ends meet. As the strangers settle in, they find the hotel isn’t what it seems, and as the night progresses they encounter danger not only in the form on their combating secrets but also from threats outside of the lodge.
The script has all the aforementioned markings of a Tarantino film, including some of his favorite structural elements, such as a complex non-linear storyline and a slew of exposition-heavy flashbacks. It stands on its own, however, because of the sensitivity it shows to its characters, eschewing Tarantino’s proclivity for caricatures in favor of less black-and-white, more human personalities. This strange, deftly-written band of loners serve as the foundation of the film, preventing it from collapsing under the weight of its testy two-and-a-half hour run-time. Each of them is layered with increasingly tricky personality traits, giving their respective actors the daunting task of making them believable. But with a cast this good, it’s unsurprising that every single member of the ensemble runs away with it.
While each role might be in some way steeped in cliche (it’s clear that Goddard, like Tarantino, is a prolific viewer), the entire cast is electric. Bridges brings sensitivity and sympathy to an aging schemer, Hamm is delightful as an even sleazier near-satire of Don Draper, and Johnson continues to grow from her Fifty Shades past with a performances that’s equal parts dangerous and achingly somber. The real star, however, is Erivo, who is given center stage as the only one caught up in this mess that isn’t a certified low-life. She forms the emotional backbone of the film, showing a quiet disdain for the mopey plights of her fellow guests because she knows what the world is really like. Discouraged by sexism, racism, and the illusion of choice under the promise of the so-called American Dream, Darlene is a character in a far worse spot than her privileged counterparts. Yet she is more powerful, more morally resolute, than any of them, and it Erivo’s dynamite performance that lets that strong nature shine through. Not to mention she gets three flooring scenes in which she gets to show off her Tony-award winning voice, each one more intoxicating than the last. Even as the film’s cast balloons, expanding the role of the disturbed bell boy Miles (Lewis Pullman) and bringing in a deliciously macabre Chris Hemsworth (Thor: Ragnarok) as a Mansonesque cult leader, Erivo stands out among the crowd.
The plot may build its foundations upon decades of film tropes, but it finds purpose in its distaste for the twisted Americana that inspires it. In its essence, El Royale is about the decadence of our country’s nuclear family style fantasies, and how the allure of those dreams sweeps the pain of those in our society who are most vulnerable under the proverbial rug. We root for these bad people to succeed and maybe even find forgiveness because the film is acutely aware of the sort of civilization that has produced them. From the early revelation that the hotel is riddled with wiretaps, two-way mirrors, and cameras capturing the seediest moments of our private lives, we see the paint thinning under the glitz and glamour of this distinctly American hotel. It’s a beacon for our demons, one which shines a light on the greed that smothered the cultural fire of the 50s and 60s and gave rise to the manipulations of both those in power and those like Hemsworth’s character, the types who prey upon those who seek to be free of this oppressive system. Both the El Royale and the fates of its guests deliver a timely, startling examination of an era we still seem to admire despite its propensity for savagery.
Don’t mistake Bad Times at the El Royale for a so-called “prestige” film. Goddard is strictly here to give you a good time, piling on twist after twist as the plot rolls on and relying on reliable, somewhat unoriginal plot beats to keep it all together. Like with his similarly thoughtful The Cabin in the Woods, however, he’s hoping you’ll consider the real-world conditions behind the fun you’re having. Sure, it’s entertaining as hell to watch Hemsworth play roulette for the lives of these slimy characters. But shouldn’t we also ask what drove our culture to somewhere like the El Royale in the first place?