Film review: ‘BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE’ by Nick Gardener from ‘Built For Speed’

Bad Times at the El Royale is an entrancingly stylish and inventive, if at times slow-moving and slightly fractured, mystery thriller and homage to film noir. The plot is a spoiler minefield for reviewers so only a little of this film’s twisted and tangled story can be revealed.

Set in 1969, the film sees four disparate and suspicious characters: ageing priest Father Flynn (Jeff Bridges), Cajun-accented vacuum cleaner salesman Laramie Seymour Sullivan (John Hamm), soul singer Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo) and the flinty and seductive Emily (Dakota Johnson) check in at the El Royale motel.   Straddling the border between California and Nevada and decorated differently on each side of this division, the wonderfully idiosyncratic and strangely understaffed establishment provides a superbly oddball setting and a reference to the internally conflicted personalities of its guests. Cinema audiences are now well aware that whenever there’s a motel in a film someone is going to be murdered there and violence and death will rain on the guests but not before their back stories have slowly unspooled and their reasons for descending on the motel have been revealed.

Drenched in 60’s retro cool with wonderful attention to detail in set design, costuming and music, the film would be intoxicating for its aesthetic qualities alone. Better still, director Drew Goddard creates a multi-layered crime story that repurposes the film noir tropes of trenchcoated men, femme fatales, hidden loot and murder and flavours it with 60’s iconography such as the Vietnam war, political sex scandals, Motown, the mob and the Manson Family murders. The film also suggests something sinister about powerful hidden forces that impact our lives in today’s age of disappearing privacy.

This is also a cinema geek-fest as Goddard pulls in and reworks a variety of movie influences. The retro atmosphere and live-action comic book visual style recall Tarantino, the hard-boiled thriller elements suggest the Cohen brothers, the motel has a creepy Norman Bates vibe and the images of people being watched and manipulated recalls Goddard’s previous film the meta-horror flick The Cabin in The Woods. Also, with its depiction of a group of strangers caught in a type of purgatory trying to work out what is going on, the film vaguely brings to mind Satre’s No Exit and tv show Lost.  Impressively, despite recalling so many other sources, Goddard doesn’t allow the film to become overly derivative.

The cast are mostly excellent, particularly Bridges who brings a grizzled but affectionate quality to Father Flynn and Erivo who just about steals the film as the singer desperate for that last chance in life. Erivo also treats us to some stunning a cappella renditions of 60’s soul tunes.

The film stumbles in its latter stages when it introduces Chris Hemsworth as a Mansonesque cult leader who comes for one of the guests. Looking like a cross between Jim Morrison and porn legend John Holmes, he’s a little too quirky, vain and campy and not as menacing as he needed to be. Also, his pronouncements while tormenting people don’t have the Tarantino-esque wit and malevolence they were clearly meant to have.

Consequently, the build-up in Bad Times at the El Royale is more impressive than the pay-off but credit to Goddard and the cast for keeping us hooked throughout.

Nick’s rating: ****

Genre: Film noir/ drama.

Classification: MA15+.

Director(s): Drew Goddard.

Release date: 11th Oct 2018.

Running time: 141 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast.

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