Movie Review : Bad Times at the El Royale (2018)
* This review contains mild spoilers *
First impressions are important. Forget the it’s-who-you-are-inside-that-matters crap. If you look goofy and behave like a panty sniffer, everyone will think you’re weird and you probably are. Because who you are to everybody else is who you are unless you can prove otherwise. Take the trailer for Bad Times at the El Royale, for example. There’s nothing in it to convince you it’s not a throwaway mess featuring marquee actors playing dress-up. It looks thoroughly unmemorable. But the trailer is really bad and probably sank the film before it even had a chance. This movie is really, really good and not at all what it first seems to be.
Man, this story is tough to summarize because there are so many moving pieces. I’ll try to keep it simple: four clients are checking-in to the El Royale hotel, which is located right on the border of California and Nevada. None of them are who they claim to be. It should’ve remained that way, but Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm) discovers a secret corridor with one-way mirrors in each of the hotel’s rooms and witnesses what seems to be an ongoing kidnapping. Sullivan courageously intervenes and therefore throws off the precarious balance of the El Royale hotel. Major shenanigans and a pretty rough night ensues.
Don’t be fooled by Bad Times at the El Royale’s colorful, graphic novel-like aesthetic. It’s a deceptively deep and nuanced portrait of Richard Nixon’s america unburdened by ambitions of realism. These five years were basically a hangover for the idealistic sixties. That’s why we have characters like an undercover federal agent pretending to be an vacuum cleaner’s salesman, a heartbroken hippie pursued by a cult leader, a man assuming a false identity after spending a decade in prison and, more straightforwardly Darlene, who’s dream has simply been crushed. And these people all find their way to the El Royale *, a literal purgatory where they’ll have to fight for their future.
The notion of purgatory is quite important to Bad Times at the El Royale, because the movie is swimming in religious undertones and symbolism. There’s a priest (Jeff Bridges), a devil (Chris Hemsworth), two pilgrims enterting the desert (Dakota Johnson and Cailee Spaeny), an avatar of St. Michael, etc. Bad Times at the El Royale is not a religious movie per se, but its character interactions are permeated by Christian mythology. And just like in the Bible, it’s the righteous and the repentant that prevail at the end of the night. I know it’s corny, but writer and director of Bad Times at the El Royale Drew Goddard does a solid job at keeping you guessing until the end.
One last thing I want to mention about this movie is the creativity of the direction. I’ll give you just one example: the use of music. Darlene Sweet (the excellent Cynthia Erivo) is a singer and a couple times in the movie, she sings accapella. Instead of lingering on Darlene, Drew Goddard uses these performances as a soundtrack for the other characters in Bad Times at the El Royale, which gives the movie an aura of loneliness and alienation it could’ve possibly have otherwise. Darlene’s loneliness permeates the walls of the hotel and sneaks into the other character’s lives. It helps paint a deeper and more layered portrait of characters who would’ve seemed one dimensional otherwise.
The trailer for Bad Times at the El Royale was viewed 23 million times on YouTube, which has to be where most people stopped. I don’t think even 10% of these 23 million people have seen the actual movie and it’s a tragedy. The movie barely made half of its budget in theaters and that failure can mostly be explained by how it presented itself. But Bad Times at the El Royale doesn’t deserve to be forgotten. It’s the kind of movie that would’ve been a VHS/DVD hit in another era and that would’ve easily gained cult status. Don’t let any rental price tag scare you off. Watch Bad Times at the El Royale as soon as you can, for it’s a wicked good time.
* If Bad Times at the El Royale was as cartoony as it looked, the hotel would’ve been called Hotel California.