Movie Review: Bad Times at the El Royale

  • Director: Drew Goddard
  • Rating: R
  • Starring: Jeff Bridges, Jon Hamm, Dakota Johnson, Cynthia Erivo, Chris Hemsworth, Lewis Pullman
  • Screenplay: Drew Goddard
  • Music By: Michael Giacchino
  • Cinematography: Seamus McGarvey
  • Running Time: 141 Minutes
  • Premiered: October 12, 2018 (USA)

Synopsis: Circa 1968, several strangers, most with a secret to bury, meet by chance at Lake Tahoe’s El Royale, a rundown hotel with a dark past. Over the course of one night, everyone will show their true colors – before everything goes to hell. (From IMDb)

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Review: Many check in, but few check out. In a run down motel on the border of California and Nevada, The El Royale Motel stands as a beacon to older times. Pictures of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr, and many other stars of a bygone era decorate the walls. The whiffs of power from visiting politicians still linger in the halls. Now that the golden era has passed, the motel stands as a reminder of simpler days. Into this trophy of past glory gather seven strangers, each with a different reason for not wanting to be disturbed.

Stranger 1: Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm)-a vacuum cleaner salesman with more to him than meets the eye.

Stranger 2: Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo)-a struggling African-American soul singer passing through on her way to a gig in Reno.

Stranger 3: Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges)-a pastor with a fading memory and a shady past.

Stranger 4: Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson)-a young, hippie woman with an attitude and a wish to not be disturbed.

Stranger 5: Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman)-the troubled motel receptionist/chef/maintenance man/seemingly the only motel employee.

Stranger 6: Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth)-a strange man who is somehow connected to Emily.

Stranger 7: Rose Summerspring (Cailee Spaeny)-Emily’s troubled younger sister.

The events depicted in Bad Times at the El Royale occurs over the course of one night at the El Royale motel. When struggling singer Darlene Sweet arrives looking for a room, she encounters Laramie Sullivan and Father Daniel Flynn at the check in desk. While the El Royale was once a bustling and successful business, given that the motel employees only one concierge – the young Miles Miller – the lodge’s heydays are ancient history. Each person who checks in hides their own secrets, including Emily Summerspring and her sister Rose Summerspring.

However, even the motel hides some secrets, as one of the guests discovers a secret hallway that allows Miles to watch what occurs in the rooms without the knowledge of the guests. The movie showcases the various perspectives by giving each character a brief vignette. These vignettes focus on each of the inhabitants who only cross paths with each other as they attempt to keep their own intentions secret. Just when the narrative appears to go one direction, a giant swerve occurs in the form charismatic cult leader Billy Lee. He arrives at the motel to retrieve a stolen item. As the various paths, pasts, and problems of characters, it remains to be seen who will survive long enough to check out in the morning.

America in the 1960s featured a time of heightened political and social issues due to the unpopularity of the Vietnam War and the momentum of the Civil Rights Movement. Bad Times at the El Royale taps into the discontentment of this era to fabulous effect. While movie remains rooted in the 1960s, it also subtly comments on the nature of politics today. One particular line in narrative so perfectly captures the cyclical nature of powerful men abusing this position just because they can. Drew Goddard has crafted a beautiful genre film that is also well written and acted to perfection. Each twist digs up a new and unexpected turn.

The cast keeps the narrative moving. Keep in mind, Bad Times relies on character development and dialogue to move the story forward. Little action occurs. Bridges and Hamm offer great turns in their particular roles, bringing the right amount of gravitas and charm to make their characters believable. Hemsworth plays crazy amazingly well. Cult leader Billy Lee is equal parts charming and menacing. Johnson and Spaeny make compelling sisters, while Pullman plays the troubled Miles with a surprising amount of depth. This is one of the few ensemble-style films where no one felt out of place. All the actors held their own.

With such a strong cast, it would seem impossible for any actor to stand out. However, Bad Times at the El Royale belongs to Cynthia Erivo. While a newcomer to Hollywood, she is a veteran of the stage. She won a Tony Award for her role in the musical adaptation of The Color Purple. Erivo brings her extensive talents to the big screen – including her singing voice – and elevates the movie by portraying as the enthralling Darlene. Her singing voice is absolutely gorgeous and she actually sings in the movie, acapella style.

I deeply enjoyed this movie. Everything from the plotting, to the characters, to the gorgeous 1960s style cinematography worked extremely well and made the film a wonderful viewing experience. This is a slow burning narrative since the action relies upon character development, not high speed chases. In the days of multiple sequels, prequels, and spin offs, a standalone story with a superstar cast is a refreshing change. If you are in the mood for a slower paced but deeply intriguing movie, check out Bad Times at the El Royale.  

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