Writer director Drew Goddard usually tends to specialise in high concept (Lost and The Good Place on TV, writing CLOVERFIELD or adapting WORLD WAR Z and THE MARTIAN for the big screen, and his directorial debut was CABIN IN THE WOODS), so it’s something of surprise to see him deviate into relatively more grounded territory with this labyrinthine pulp thriller.
It’s 1969, and the titular hotel – a
novelty establishment that bestrides the states of California and Nevada – has
seen better days. Not so long ago it was the hottest, jumping-est spot in the
Pacific time zone, accommodating and entertaining the biggest A-list stars and
dignitaries. Split by a bright red line running literally right through its
centre, guests enjoyed the gimmick of being able to choose in which side of the
venue they would stay. It was also, according to a prologue, the scene of its
share of shady dealings. Then, for some mysterious reason the renewal of the El
Royale’s gaming license was denied. Now it’s all but deserted, except for sole
employee Miles (Lewis Pullman) – and the four strangers who turn up at almost exactly
the same time, each with their own reasons and secrets.
There’s the elderly and forgetful Father Flynn (Jeff Bridges), struggling singer Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo), vacuum cleaner salesman Laramie Sullivan (Jon Hamm), and terse loner Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson). We have a pretty good idea that most of these people are not who they say they are, but their real identities and intentions? That, as the genre dictates, is anyone’s guess
Much mention has already been made of Goddard’s invoking Quentin Tarantino’s trademarks – the chapter headings, the overlapping points of view, the verboseness of the characters, jukebox worship – but that’s little unfair. It’s more the case that Goddard and Tarantino are drawing from the same sources, and both are doing it well.
It’s a beautifully stylish film thanks to both Seamus McGarvey’s (ATONEMENT, THE AVENGERS) lush, neon-soaked cinematography, and the art and productions teams: Martin Whist, Michael Diner, Lisa Van Velden and Hamish Purdy pouring glorious, swingin’ period detail into every scene, while the sets themselves cleverly come to represent the themes (ethical boundaries, lines being crossed, silent witness vs intervention) of Goddard’s knotted story. Oh, a let’s give another shout out to that gorgeous jukebox
But while the first two acts of Goddard's story are all grimy atmospherics and tense fun, when the storm arrives in the form of Chris Hemsworth’s malevolent charmer Billy Lee, things begin to unravel. We’re given a denouement which, for reasons that shall here remain unnamed (but here's a clue: it's to do with a commonality within his previous body of work), isn’t entirely satisfying. Sure, it’s only one bum note, but it’s the high note, and while that's not the end of the world it’s just a bit of a pity when the rest has been so much grubby fun.
BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE is released October 11 in Australia, and October 12 in the US and UK.