Staying at Hotel Rwanda might be safer. It is 1969, and right on the edge of Nevada and California is a hotel known as the El Royale. A decade ago, this was the place to be where everyone near and far would come to enjoy life. That was before a deadly incident occurred on the premises, effectively scaring away patrons. Now? The only clientele the El Royale appeals to are those who are looking for a cheap place to stay.
On one particular afternoon, singer Darlene (Cynthia Erivo), Priest Father Flynn (Jeff Bridges), salesman Laramie Sullivan (Jon Hamm), and drifter Emily (Dakota Johnson) all arrive with differing agendas; a few personal, others, professional. No matter the case, each agenda will intertwine with another. In one night, fortunes will change, secrets will be unearthed, and sinners will get the opportunity to repent. This is the El Royale.
Let’s get one thing off the table. For those who are thunder disciples in one Church of Chris Hemsworth going under the impression he was going to be a central part in the movie based off marketing, disappointment could be in the cards. Nonetheless, the Aussie wrings every second of his screen time out by channeling a certain infamous cult leader—only with better abdominals. Looking at the movie he appears in, Bad Times at the El Royale takes a little from notable genres and specific features in them. It boils down to a technically fine—if kind of soulless—homage to a ton of things than a really memorable addition to what it’s being inspired by.
Bad Times at the El Royale makes its name in production. In his first major directing release since the horror meta-satire that was The Cabin in the Woods, director/writer Drew Goddard doesn’t deconstruct as much as he does construct, inspired first and foremost by film noir. The setting and design are built to perfection; as are the lighting and original music. It’s a production to get lost in, at the very least. Composer Michael Giacchino gives appropriate context to scenes through his score. It’s impossible not to see the tribute to many of Quentin Tarantino’s works (in particular, The Hateful Eight), from the chapter cards to the technique of showing a situation a multitude of times and getting additional information from seeing it from another character’s point-of-view. However, slightly forgotten films in Identity and Vacancy can be seen in the DNA of Goddard’s feature, also.
While there’s enough interest in seeing the pieces of the mystery fit together, Goddard’s script in Bad Times at the El Royale might leave a viewer wanting once those pieces snap into place. So often, it feels content with subverting expectations at the cost of making sense. For example, one character is depicted as being subtly racist and overtly sexist, but this is quickly revealed to be nothing a misdirection. Yet, the script never gives any reason as to why the character had to put up this front, and the way this reality is discarded and never brought up again is extremely jarring. Perhaps I’m just looking for something I wanted to be there in the way of substance when this isn’t that type of movie. There’s tinges of 1960’s counterculture, such as feminism and system overthrow, but they’re only that, just tinges instead of opportunities for commentary and/or satirical analysis to today’s world. There’s an interesting reveal regarding the hotel, though this ends up existing solely for aesthetic reasons.
No matter if his characters are gold-hearted or heartless, Tarantino’s movies thrive in showcasing riveting characters talk with one another, and he has a way in making three hours seen like two. Every minute of the 2:21 run time of BTatER is felt, mainly because a sizable chunk of these characters lack the interest to want to hear them talk for considerable stretches on end, with only mildly successful stabs at humor to boot. That’s disappointing, because some of the cast is game for the task. In a more thorough screenplay, Bridges and Erivo would probably be possibilities for awards love. By far, they get the most material and the best moments, and seeing the two evolve throughout the film might be worth the price of admission. Outside of a late-arriving Hemsworth and some of Lewis Pullman’s performance as a seen-it-all concierge, the big cast that includes Hamm, Johnson, and Nick Offerman doesn’t amount to a ton.
Sometimes, there’s no real place for a movie to go once all the proverbial cards it holds are shown. That is Bad Times at the El Royale summed up. This isn’t a bad time spent, just a mediocre one.
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