×

‘El Royale’ Is Sleek, Violent, Meaningless Rubbish

  • This image released by 20th Century Fox shows Jeff Bridges, left, and Cynthia Erivo in a scene from "Bad Times at the El Royal." (Kimberley French/20th Century Fox via AP)



The Washington Post
Friday, October 12, 2018

The setup of Bad Times at the El Royale sounds familiar, even cliche: Seven strangers, each with a skeleton in the closet, find themselves thrown together at a hotel that has seen better days, and that itself hides a secret — one that is revealed in the short, wham-bam prologue that sets the stage for this 1969-set film, which is part B-movie sendup, part noirish hybrid of mystery and black comedy, and all original.

The name of its writer and director, Drew Goddard, may not mean anything to some. But anyone who has seen Goddard’s only previous film, the meta-horror movie The Cabin in the Woods, or who knows his work as a writer on such projects as Lost, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the Oscar-nominated adaptation of The Martian, will know to expect the unexpected.

Not all of its surprises are pleasant ones, but there is a certain satisfaction in experiencing a yarn that is so obstinately un-anticipatable.

Set in the titular hotel, a Lake Tahoe-area lodge that straddles the Nevada-California line, the action of the film takes place on a night when the front-desk clerk of the normally godforsaken inn (Lewis Pullman) is suddenly overwhelmed by small scramble for rooms. A traveling vacuum-cleaner salesman (Jon Hamm), a priest (Jeff Bridges), a lounge singer (Cynthia Erivo) and a hippie (Dakota Johnson) — or four people who claim to be those things — show up at about the same time, each of them lugging some heavy baggage.

It sounds like the prelude to a joke. And in some ways it is. With a Tarantino-esque soundtrack of vintage R&B and classic pop-rock tunes playing over much of this soon-to-turn-lurid-and-bloody tale, the film feels at times like a parody, but of what, it’s not exactly clear.

Bad Times is period-perfect, with gorgeous production design (by Martin Whist) and a moody score (by Michael Giacchino), but it’s also a little too perfect: a 21st-century wisenheimer’s appropriation, and recapitulation, of an era that appears more vivid and colorful than the original ever was, because it’s a fantasy.

Woven into this fantasy, over a slightly overlong running time, are narrative threads involving the Vietnam War, a Manson-like cult and the civil rights struggle. But Goddard never wields these themes. Rather, he seems more interested in the 1960s as a good-looking narrative device rather than a real and turbulent time. It’s a beautiful picture frame, surrounding a lot of ugliness and violence.

More indelible than the art direction, however, is the cast, which is headed up by Bridges in the kind of tough-but-tender performance he seems capable of delivering with his hands tied behind his back

Bad Times at the El Royale certainly goes places you wouldn’t predict, but it’s not always evident why. Like the namesake hotel, which boasts a red line running through its lobby — one side the home state of Tinseltown, the other Sin City — Bad Times at the El Royale is a schizoid thing: terribly entertaining, and a bit soulless.

Bad Times at the El Royaleis rated R. Contains strong violence, strong language, some drug elements and brief nudity. 140 minutes.