Bad Times At The El Royale

****

Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Bad Times At The El Royale
"A thriller that, although it could have done with judicious editing at the beginning and end, nonetheless delivers laughs, shocks and, most importantly, that sense of satisfaction that only comes when puzzle pieces come together with a resounding click" | Photo: Courtesy of San Sebastian Film Festival

After watching Bad Times At The El Royale - the closing film at San Sebastian Film Festival this year - I left with the distinct feeling writer/director Drew Goddard was one of those kids who just loved to take things apart and put them back together again to see how they worked. He loves the mechanics of things - and not just the smoothly satisfying action of a jukebox spinning up a record or the beat of a metronome. He's also interested in the the sort of murder mystery dynamics favoured by Agatha Christie not to mention the psychological mechanics that make people tick.

All of these come together gloriously to create a thriller that, although it could have done with some judicious editing at the beginning and end, nonetheless delivers laughs, shocks and, most importantly, that sense of satisfaction that only comes when puzzle pieces come together with a resounding click.

Copy picture

As with his debut feature, The Cabin In The Woods - Goddard likes a fixed inventory. This time the action, aside from one or two cutaways, is confined to the El Royale hotel, a seen better days pile in the middle of nowhere carved in two by a red line marking the juncture between California and Nevada - a place where, during the course of a single night, at an unspecified junction between the Sixties and Seventies, all sorts of borders are about to be crossed with no turning back.

If the hotel is the board, its guests and resident receptionist Miles (Lewis Pullman) are the pawns in Goddard's game, which he sets up in intriguing flashback at the start of the film. At the same time, each character is working an angle according to their own rules - unaware of additional potential puppet masters.

The guests arrive piecemeal. The flamboyantly named Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm), his suitcase and patter to the fore, his fakery unmistakeable; bearded and mysterious preacher Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges); Supremes-style backing singer Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo), on a stop-off as she travels to Reno; and a hippy (Dakota Johnson) who is less than keen to commit her name to the sign-in sheet. Goddard hides his artifice in plain sight - we're supposed to know they're all lying on some level, otherwise where's the fun?

As the arrivals retreat to their rooms, we become privy to certain facts. Facts that it would be better for you to enjoy rather than reading them here. Suffice to say, some of Goddard's surveillance equipment from The Cabin In The Woods resurfaces here, along with a long-ago stashed bag of loot and the shadow of a Charles Manson-esque cult run by Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth), who arrives fashionably late to this retro party.

Nothing and no one is quite what or who they seem and Goddard delights in revealing each item in turn by initially switching the perspective from room to room. This allows him to gradually build pay offs into the bargain, allowing us to be in on 'secrets' and soon to happen outcomes that the characters are not. There's a Quentin Tarantino-style glee in the violent episodes - Billy Lee would slot in to virtually any QT movie - and an almost Wes Anderson level attention to set detail, all shot with a burnished beauty by Seamus McGarvey. But there's also something much more comfortingly old-fashioned about the way Goddard integrates things such as diagetic sound - in particular, allowing Erivo to belt out soulful hits at key moments. He wants us to feel as though we've been here before, so that he can sneak up and surprise us.

The cast - which also includes Cailee Spaeny, Nick Offerman and even director Xavier Dolan in a cameo - are uniformly excellent. Perhaps, in fact, a little too good. I wonder whether, if it hadn't been Hamm and Hemsworth taking stage in the lengthy hotel lounge scenes that bookend the movie whether they would have been trimmed more to fit the rest of the film. While I'm as on board with Hemsworth sashaying around semi-clad as the next person, you begin to wonder if Goddard just couldn't bring himself to cut a single moment as neither man is a key player.

Still, it seems fitting to forgive him given that the film is also interested in redemption roulette - what are the characters willing to forgive and how about us - how much is all of that dependent not on something they do but on fate? How much indulgence you're prepared to offer Goddard might depend on how much you enjoy an old-fashioned yarn without picking at the loose threads - but its well worth checking in to check it out.

Watch a clip from the film below:

Reviewed on: 09 Oct 2018
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Bad Times At The El Royale packshot
Seven strangers, each with a secret to bury, meet at Lake Tahoe's El Royale, a rundown hotel with a dark past. Over the course of one fateful night, everyone will have a last shot at redemption... before everything goes to hell.

Director: Drew Goddard

Writer: Drew Goddard

Starring: Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo, Dakota Johnson, Lewis Pullman, Chris Hemsworth, Jon Hamm, Cailee Spaeny, Manny Jacinto, Nick Offerman, Xavier Dolan

Year: 2018

Runtime: 141 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US

Festivals:

SSFF 2018

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