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
Cool review. Would love to know what QT thinks.
Ha! Who knows. I’m one of the few who isn’t always on board with QT. But you can certainly feel the influence on El Royale. Have you checked it out yet?
Only just come out. Might do yeah. I didn’t see Free Fire, but the plot seemed similar to Reservoir Dogs for sure.
The reactions to it have been lukewarm too favorable. I think the biggest gripes come with the run time. I actually didn’t have a problem with that though.
Long, but entertaining. Nice review Keith.
Thanks man. That seems to be the going criticism for a lot of people. It definitely ran longer than I expected, but I was hooked throughout.
I really like this review super detailed and it doesn’t hurt that I agree. I’ve also done a review of this film and agree about the Tarantino esq qualities it has. really enjoyed this post!
Thanks so much. Appreciate you checking it out. It’s a fun movie but one I think too many people are dismissing. I had a blast with it.
Yeah it didnt have the best opening weekend but I loved it, hopefully people come back to it
Yep. I may see it again before it leaves theaters. I’ve sold my wife on checking it out.
I will say this: Chris Hemsworth-as-cult-leader is a tough sell. I bought his physique more than I bought him as the David Koresh-type. Eh. But everyone else I really enjoyed. The character of Darlene Sweet was great. Really loved her “big” moment. And the guy who played her . . . what, manager? What a creep!
Ha Ha. I enjoyed Hemsworth mainly because they injected just enough goofiness to make it work for me. Goofing on his much-acclaimed physique and funky sense of humor – I kinda had a blast with it. But if that didn’t work for you I can see the performance and casting being hard to swallow.
I was hoping to see this as part of a double-feature with First Man but timing prevented it as I’m not sure if I’ll be able to. Even as I just discovered The Cabin in the Woods which floored the fuck out of me.
This is a much different movie than “Cabin” but both show off Goddard’s real knack for filmmaking. “El Royale” doesn’t seem to be everyone’s cup of tea, but I had a blast with it.
Great review. You’re right on the Tarantino feel, I thought of that while watching too. I liked this overall, but as I’ve said before. I would’ve preferred a mini series.
I did kind of like the mystery behind which powerful man was on that film. That was interesting.
That mystery worked really well and I like how Goddard let our imagination sort it out. And I really like the mini-series idea!
Great review! I agree with the Tarantino similarities, but Goddard is way less bloodier in his shots 🙂 Overall, I liked the movie – the only downside I found were the the slow spots you mentioned, which annoyed me
Thanks for reading and for the comments. I think the slow spots really brought it down for people. I guess I was so into the characters that I was chewing up every scene. I’m interested in seeing how this movie is viewed over time.
Thanks for your review! I’m reading a lot of good things about this movie, looking forward to seeing it!
Hope you get to see it soon. I think I probably like it a little more than most. I just found it to be a ton of fun.
I finally saw it and I loved it! And I wrote a short review here, if you want to read it:
Great to hear. Look forward to reading more. It leaves such a strong impression.
Wasn’t too excited to see this movie, but (after watching it) I quite liked it. Love how different it was from today’s movies and the cast was excellent in the film.
Exactly. I loved its unique flavor and style of storytelling. Did it run too long for you? A lot of people have criticized its run time but it wasn’t a big issue for me.
I was so let down by this. I was expecting a huge twist like in The Cabin in the Woods and nothing happened
LOL. It’s funny, I was kinda the opposite. I liked “Cabin” but never loved it the way many did. I kinda like that this one didn’t go over the top like that film.
Also compared it to Tarantino’s work and although this is dfiferent I loved is almost as much. Unexpected moments and a sense of atmoshphere not many movies can create.
That comparison is definitely there. I really loved the distinctions though. As someone who often pushes back on QT’s excesses I found this to be a welcome twist on his style.
Yeah, it felt fresh in its own way.
Will be seeing this tomorrow night in the Saturday Night fun movie slot, am really looking forward to it now I’ve read your review.
It’s a ‘cool’ movie. Great cast and a lot of style. It gets a little wacky which I admittedly enjoyed. Let me know what you think.