Bad Times at the El Royale

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The “who’s zooming who” thriller of the 1990s rides again in 2018’s Bad Times at the El Royale, one of those epics where, by the end, almost everyone is dead and the building is in flames yet barely a spark of emotion has been generated.

That is probably the intention. Instead writer/director Drew Goddard wants us to admire the spectacle, and gasp as he piles dialogue on top of plot on top of wayward characters and vainglorious allegory, switching timelines, digressing, flashing back, hopping from one “lead” protagonist to another as he goes – oh no, he’s dead – and generally having a fun old time in a big, kitsch, faintly ridiculous but very enjoyable movie. If it was a dessert it’d be a trifile, or definitely something with sprinkles. And blood.

A lot of it seems unnecessary. Are we funning yet appears to be the idea. Like the location at a hotel/motel set right on the border between Nevada and California. Literally – the state border runs right through the centre of it, as a thick red line. The El Royale is in a betweenspace, al allegorical limbo, with heaven as California on one side and hell as Nevada on the other (or the other way round).

This well appointed place used to be something of a draw but then lost its gambling licence and so no one comes any more. Except on this fateful day in 1969 when four people turn up. A priest called Father Flynn (Jeff Bridges), a singer called Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo), a courtly Southern vacuum-cleaner salesman called Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm) and a slightly distracted hippie called Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson).

Somewhere in the hotel/motel languishes a pile of loot, dumped under the floor years before in a bank job gone wrong. We know this because Goddard showed us in a fancily stylised pre-credits sequence. So… these people – the priest, the singer, the saleman, the hippie – one of them is something to do with the gang and is back for the loot, we surmise, but what are the others doing there?

It’s a little like the intro to The Hateful Eight – a disparate group assemble for whacks – but the real read-across to Tarantino arrives with Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth), a barefooted Charles Manson-style hippie evangelist with a gang of disciples who eventually turn up at the El Royale to precipitate the death-and-flames finale.

Jeff Bridges and Cynthia Erivo in a car
Father Flynn and Darlene Sweet

Kitsch is the overall tone, with the El Royale based on the Cal Neva Resort and Casino once owned by Frank Sinatra, and Goddard’s love of that lounge version of the 1960s is evident in the luxe looks and extreme colour co-ordination of the whole thing. The Bernard Herrmann style big string-y score (by Michael Giacchino) and the lush cinematography (Seamus McGarvey) double and triple down on the kitsch.

How galling, then, that a year later Tarantino came along with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and cleaned up, whereas Bad Times at the El Royale did badly at the box office, terribly in fact, though the critics were reasonably kind, if not exactly gushing.

Where’s the beef, seemed to be the… er… beef. It’s fair enough. Goddard plays with his audience, introducing first this, then that, an explicatory backstory here, a hidden corridor and two-way mirrors there, but there is no real focus for his audience’s emotion, though Cynthia Erivo’s struggling singer Darlene comes close – Erivo does her own singing, and she can sing. Jeff Bridges’ compromised Father Flynn comes closer. He has a redemptive epiphany of sorts, towards the end, but by that point, insulated against any emotional contact by all of Goddard’s various plot feints, phony character reveals, and the prospect that anyone, at any time, no matter how salient to the plot, might die (hello Psycho), can anyone still really be invested?

Remember Goddard did The Cabin in the Woods, when he took a simple horror structure and piled in with all the meta whipped cream and chocolate sauce he could possibly muster? He does something similar here, and once referred to the film as a “gumbo” – a bit of this, a bit of that, all chucked in the pot (no, this is not a recipe website). This is true. It’s a stew of tasty bits served up with metaphysicals. You can leave them on the side of your plate if they’re not your thing.

Bad Times at the El Royale – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2023

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