The El Royale hotel (which is actually called the Cal Neva Lodge and Casino, which was closed down at the time of filming) is a quaint one-floor residence that is half in California, and the other half in Nevada, which is possible because the hotel is right on the borders between those states. It lost its gambling license a while back, so now the only worker and concierge of the hotel, Miles Miller, who looks younger than me, operates the whole place. Four strange mismatched people; a Catholic priest named Daniel Flynn, a singer named Darlene Sweet who is attempting to get her feet back up in her career in a shroud of racism, a creepy businessman named Dwight Broedback who won’t take no for an answer, and some kind of hotshot who looks like Dakota Johnson who writes “F You” on the sign-in sheet when Miles asks her to write her name down on it. Those five people are the only ones at this hotel. But their first night there ends up turning into a nightmare when it is revealed one of them had a secret plan to avenge someone personal to them, but the others have some secrets they will do anything to keep buried, and when misunderstandings and grudges clash, the bad times boom.
The opening is definitely...unique and weird, and it promises there’s going to be guns involved in whatever goes down, but after the opening it shifts to Darlene and Flynn, the former helping the latter with his bags into this vacant hotel. And as we walk into the hotel, filled with wide chimes, lava-lamp coloured couches, opulent record players by the walls, odd photos and even odder artefacts on display, I had some mild hesitation. Phantom Thread was a movie that tried to be lovely to look at but underestimated my desire to have some actual enchantment in what was playing onscreen. For this film, I didn’t know what to make of it as some of these characters get awkwardly acquainted and I did my best to do an effort to pay attention. American Hustle from 2013 (an A+ movie for most, a D- or F movie for me) was a movie set around this same time period with great actors, especially Jennifer Lawrence, and great sets, and a complete misapprehension of entertainment by confusing us until the actual scam is about as plain as paper. I gotta tell you, some critics said it was kind of the point to end up lost in that movie, but for me if I am unable to follow even the context of the film, there’s no room for caring about the characters or actual turnout. Bad Times at the El Royale did not do that.
But here’s another comparison to American Hustle, this time positive. Both films gambled, in different ways. That movie was okay with making us lost. This film tries to be more artsy than the general film by giving us flashbacks, redoes of scenes from different points of view, this time it seems so we are not lost in what the characters are or were doing, nor how they end up or are feeling. It’s a good excuse to make this movie over 2 hours but keeping us up to date with just a few events so the whole event doesn’t feel too exhausting. Most films that try to bend the structure of a movie end up doing so admirably but end up sacrificing the entertainment value. This time, we are started off with some awkward racism between two characters, and an early reveal of the fact this hotel is designed in a very violating way to keep our attention. Then a gun goes off, and a flashback starts, and our attention remains. As things get more and more complex and storytelling, in that longer flashbacks show up by the halfway point, we feel we’re digesting things properly, director Drew Goddard for the most part knowing when enough is enough.
There’s a small disruption in the climax with another flashback that could’ve been much earlier, and there’s a character that doesn’t have enough to do in the grand scheme of things, and another that’s flat-out weird, and during another flashback, we witness a federal crime and I felt the two perpetrators were not acting like they had to get their asses away or else they’d be behind bars for the next ten years. So I’d be lying if I said the movie was perfect. I’d be lying if I also said it wasn’t a breath of fresh air too.
Every actor is more than fine and up for the job, but it’s Cynthia Eviro, who plays Darlene, who chomps the pie. Her stage and vocal performance involves her singing for long, wide shots, and listening to her was toe-tapping and anything but sadistic. Jeff Bridges plays arguably the star of the show as the priest, and just like in everything else, he’s the approachable, grandfatherly type we can lay back and listen to. I think Dakota Johnson has finally played a role worthy of her talent and Chris Hemsworth seems to fully welcome the experimentation in playing some obnoxious narcissist. And apart from that interruption, the final few minutes are extremely tense and memorable.
Bad Times at the El Royale was one of my most surprising viewings of 2018, an art film over two hours that also successfully incorporates themes of mystery, drama and music, all more than acceptably rendered.