It’s hard to watch Drew Goddard’s new neo-noir crime-thriller and not think of Quentin Tarantino. For better or for worse “Bad Times at the El Royale” plays like a Tarantino picture. It leans heavily on its style, its characters are a shady lot, violence comes in bloody bursts, and the whole thing is a bit gonzo. But while QT’s unshakable dedication to his brand can often push things over the top, Goddard dials it back. It turns out to be both a strength of the film and perhaps a weakness.
“El Royale” is built almost entirely around secrets and revelation. Goddard (serving as both writer and director) crafts a story thick with plot and every person we encounter is a mystery to be unpacked. He does that through a series of chapters, each focused on a particular character, that tells their backstory and connects them to the main narrative.
The film is set in 1969 at the El Royale Hotel, a once hopping motor lodge not far from Lake Tahoe. The end-of-the-road property straddles the California/Nevada border with a set of rooms in each state. Upon checking in, the guest can choose between the “warmth and sunshine” of a California room or the “hope and opportunity” on the Nevada side. The lone employee is a less-than-motivated concierge named Miles (Lewis Pullman). But don’t let the bright welcoming neon sign fool you. The El Royale has just as many secrets as the characters we encounter.
The first person we meet is Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo) a struggling nightclub singer on her way to a show in Reno. There is also Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges), a priest from Indiana heading to visit his brother. In the lobby they both meet an obnoxious and prattling vacuum cleaner salesman Laramie Seymour Sullivan (John Hamm). The final piece of this twisted human puzzle to arrive is an attitude-rich hippie named Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson).
Miles is caught off guard by actual guests and after listening to his scripted spiel they all head off to their rooms. Revealing much more past that would be doing a disservice especially considering how dependent the film is on twists and surprises. What was most surprising was Goddard’s patience before showing all his cards. There are far more dialogue-driven character moments than I ever expected. This undeniably adds to the rather long 141-minute running time (which many have criticized). In some instances they slow things down, but I found these moments worked far more often than not.
It’s hard to say anything bad about Goddard’s presentation. “El Royale” looks fantastic and the camera is constantly doing cool things with angles, shadows and perspectives. Almost every frame is showing off some level of pulpy noir style. Goddard’s past work (“Cloverfield” and “The Cabin in the Woods”) has shown a flair for utilizing evocative imagery. He pushes it further here, really digging into his setting. And he never passes up an opportunity to slip in some 60’s tunes (from Motown to Deep Purple).
“El Royale” is a movie I found to be kind of fascinating. Goddard deftly maneuvers his unconventional narrative while playing with time, tinkering with points of view, and tossing in a MacGuffin or two. At the same time he constantly offers his ensemble cast plenty of meaty moments. And things only get crazier once Chris Hemsworth shows up (I’ll let you figure him out on your own). There is no doubt the movie has a couple of slow spots and its best scenes are during its early ambiguity. But I still had a ton of fun with this weirdly delicious concoction.
VERDICT – 4 STARS