Mark Reviews Movies

Bad Times at the El Royale


2 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Drew Goddard

Cast: Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo, Dakota Johnson, Lewis Pullman, Jon Hamm, Cailee Spaney, Chris Hemsworth, Nick Offerman

MPAA Rating: R (for strong violence, language, some drug content and brief nudity)

Running Time: 2:21

Release Date: 10/12/18

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Review by Mark Dujsik | October 11, 2018

We first see a man enter a motel room. There's a lengthy scene—first seen in a single take—of the man settling himself in the room. The scene continues—in a series of jump cuts—with the man moving the furniture, rolling back the carpet, and tearing up the floorboards, before placing a bag beneath the floor and replacing everything in the room as he found it.

There's a knock at the door. Moments later, there's a loud, shotgun blast of an explosion and a violent expulsion of blood. The man we've been following this whole time falls dead to the ground.

That's how Bad Times at the El Royale begins, and it prepares us for a few things. The first is the meticulous degree to which writer/director Drew Goddard establishes his scenarios here, as well as subtly introducing the important detail that the rest of the movie will be a series of scenarios. The second is kind of tied to the first, and it has to do with the movie's overall rhythm, which is unhurried and relaxed (even those jump cuts keep up the tempo)—until, very suddenly and rather unexpectedly, it is anything but. The third detail of note is perhaps the most important one: We can't trust anything in this movie.

That is Goddard's ultimate point, it seems, as he imagines a world of chaotic distrust, set in the late 1960s. We can't trust the characters, all of whom are liars in some way. Some of the lies are harmless. Some are openly malicious. A few seem as if they're said in order to hide something terrible, only for the screenplay to reveal that the liars are actually hiding something good or being dishonest to themselves to cope with something terrible.

The seven main characters who end up at the El Royale, a place of former glory on the Nevada-California border, are all wearing masks of some kind. Goddard doesn't so much peel off those masks as he rips them off through violence or a sudden change in perspective. The shifts themselves feel like a kind of violence, if only because we've been lulled into a certain way of thinking about these people. When that thinking turns out to be wrong, it's like an attack on our expectations.

At first, the constant change of understanding is a little thrilling. Since it happens constantly here, though, we eventually become numb to it, even in extreme cases when certain characters—like the character at the movie's start—die just as their stories seem ready to begin.

The seven characters include a priest named Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges) and a professional singer named Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo). At the start, there's also Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson), a hippie-looking woman with a rough attitude, and Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm), a traveling vacuum salesman. The clerk on duty is Miles (Lewis Pullman), who keeps to himself in the motel's back office until he's summoned to give his rehearsed spiel about the history of the place.

That's five characters, for those who haven't been keeping track. To explain who the remaining two are and how they end up at the El Royale almost seems unfair, since so much of Goddard's purpose here is to keep such information hidden until it becomes important (This also makes it pointless to explain the assorted guests' fake and real reasons for being at the motel). Let's just say that Ruth (Cailee Spaney) arrives unseen with one of the other guests, while Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth), the charismatic leader of a cult, arrives late in the night with a score to settle.

As the day progresses into that most eventful and violent night, the characters are left to do their own thing, pair up to have lengthy conversations, and start to learn the truth about each other (or misinterpret certain actions, usually with violent results). Flashbacks help a little more, with just about every character getting his or her own to flesh out the reality that all of them keep hidden (There's one placed right in the middle of the climax for reasons that are completely logical but by that point, it almost feels like self-parody). All of the actors here are good (Erivo is the standout, as the most grounded of the bunch), and they take big bites of and long chews on the dialogue—filled with sardonic rejoinders, hidden meaning, and some rat-a-tat pacing.

What do we actually learn about any of these characters through those lengthy scenes of talking? The answer, sadly, is not much, because Goddard simply sees them as more pieces to his big puzzle, which includes secret rooms and hallways, a mysterious film reel featuring a famous but unnamed person (which, like a lot of the details here, ultimately doesn't mean much of anything to the story), and almost too much to remember—let alone mention. Bad Times at the El Royale is all about its ultimate destination—an affirmation that nothing really matters in a world filled with liars, cheats, and random chance. That's the lesson, and the substance of the movie reflects it in an inadvertently appropriate way.

Copyright © 2018 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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