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New Release Review - BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE

BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE review
A group of mysterious strangers converge at a hotel that straddles the California/Nevada border.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Drew Goddard

Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Dakota Johnson, Jon Hamm, Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo, Cailee Spaeny, Lewis Pullman

BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE poster


If the title of writer/director Drew Goddard's second feature as director, Bad Times at the El Royale, evokes memories of all those awful Tarantino knockoffs that plagued cinemas in the 1990s (Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead; Two Days in the Valley; Eight Heads in a Duffel Bag etc), you'll know exactly what you're in for here. A generic crime plot unspooled through flashbacks and divided into chapters based around specific characters? Check. A soundtrack of mid 20th century pop tunes? Check. A running time your bladder won't thank you for, exacerbated by the writer's love of their own words and their penchant for lengthy monologues? Check.

BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE review

The 'El Royale' of the title refers to the movie's uniquely intriguing setting, a hotel that straddles the border between California and Nevada. With those two states possessing very different laws, the hotel offers specific indulgences depending on which side of the border you pick a room in. You can gamble in the Nevada half, but if you fancy a drink you'll need to check into the Californian side. The potential for drama such a setting provides is never actually explored by Goddard however, and the hotel's unique selling point doesn't play into the narrative in any way. It's emblematic of a film that consistently fails to deliver on its potential.

Checking into the hotel are various shady characters, all of whom seem to be hiding their true identity (Speaking of 'identity', El Royale's setup owes a lot to the 2003 James Mangold directed thriller that bears just that title). There's good ol' boy Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm), a travelling vacuum cleaner salesman; Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo), a struggling soul singer; Father Flynn (Jeff Bridges), a priest battling senility; and Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson), a sullen young woman who keeps her face obscured behind giant sunglasses. Checking the group in is concierge Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman), the nerviest hotel manager this side of the Bates Motel.

BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE review

The characters Goddard assembles are such generic archetypes that we're forced to assume he's pulling the wool over our eyes and that all is not what it seems with this bunch. Our assumption is quickly affirmed when one character discovers a secret passage that runs behind the various rooms, with cameras set up to film through two way mirrors. We've been here before with Goddard, in his 2012 directorial debut, The Cabin in the Woods, so we immediately start to suspect there's some sort of wider conspiracy at play here. Our suspicions lead nowhere however, as after an initially curious opening act, Bad Times at the El Royale is content to play out a selection of generic crime subplots that offer nothing new to an already crowded genre.

Goddard's non-linear storytelling and use of flashbacks goes a long way to making us mistakenly believe we're watching something a lot cleverer than his film really is. There's a sense throughout that we're being teased, that any minute now Goddard is going to pull the rug out from under our expectations and turn his banal crime genre premise on its head. He never does, with the story petering out in the most unsatisfying manner, all foreplay and no climax. Put simply, it's exactly the movie you expect.

BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE review

While it's largely an overwritten and underwhelming slog, El Royale does boast one subplot that enlivens the drama every time it takes centre stage. It involves a developing and endearing relationship between Bridge's priest and Erivo's toiling songstress, and it climaxes in a wonderful moment in which Erivo tosses aside her wig to belt out a tune to cover the noise of an act Bridges doesn't want to be heard committing. As a story of a gravelly-voiced, bearded man helping a struggling young female singer to find her true voice, this subplot is a more engaging version of A Star is Born than the one currently playing in cinemas, and in Erivo - a Tony Award winning British stage performer making her film debut with one of the year's most striking performances - a star truly is born.

Bad Times at the El Royale is in UK/ROI cinemas October 12th.



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