The ads for the noirish new thriller Bad Times at the El Royale suggest that the plot revolves around seven strangers with a “secret to bury.” That certainly is truth in advertising as it seems to be exactly what writer-director Drew Goddard (The Cabin in the Woods) has in mind in a pic that recalls movies like Bogart’s Key Largo and film noirs of the 1940s but most recently the Quentin Tarantino oeuvre of blood-soaked multi-character flicks that bring a visceral edge to a more traditional Hollywood genre.
As I say in my video review (click the link above to watch), Bad Times at the El Royale (a cool title that had me at hello), is overlong at two hours and 20 minutes and a little plodding at times with a structure that introduces us to several characters individually by interrupting the present to delve into their backstories. Because these “guests” seem to have no connection, it is necessary to see what motivated their visit to this rundown relic of a bygone era, so I guess there’s no way around the storytelling device. Little by little, Goddard reveals their secrets as no one is exactly whom they seem to be and the action builds to a crescendo. Overall, though, this is a crackerjack entertainment.
A marvel of production design, the El Royale is situated on the dividing line between Nevada and California (much like Lake Tahoe’s famous Cal-Neva Lodge) with a red line running through the lobby separating gambling on the Nevada side and drinking on the California side. We gather that this was the place to hang during the Sinatra Rat Pack heyday, but now it’s empty — or appears to be as these not-so-magnificent seven enter to check in. The only employee in sight is Miles (Lewis Pullman), the all-purpose hotel clerk who tends to the guests’ every need. Into the mix comes Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm), a Southern-drawling vacuum salesman with an outsized personality; Father Flynn (Jeff Bridges), a man of the cloth but perhaps a little dirty under that collar; Darlene (Cynthia Erivo), a failed Motown soul singer who sticks close to the priest; Emily (Dakota Johnson), who arrives not only with a take-no-prisoners attitude and her weirdo younger sister (Cailee Spaeny) but also a dead body in her trunk; and finally, Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth), a Charles Manson wannabe who whose cult following has given him an outsized ego and determined mission at the El Royale.
The action really begins several years earlier, as we learn in the prologue, when a man (Nick Offerman) rushes into one of the rooms, carves up the floor and buries a bag. He comes to a quick end but carries the secret with him, something that will unite all these disparate people. Even creepier is the big reveal early on that, by going down a narrow pathway with one way windows to each room, the guests at the El Royale can be directly spied on.
Of course, with the Tarantino palette as inspiration, you probably can guess that things eventually are going to turn into hell on Earth for this crowd. But the fun is getting there, and Goddard, who also wrote screenplays for the likes of The Martian and World War Z, certainly knows his way around this kind of highly entertaining premise. All the actors seem to be having lots of fun here, with Pullman the standout in this vividly if thinly drawn brigade. Just as much a star is the musical soundtrack loaded with familiar tunes, many sung by The Color Purple Tony winner Erivo, who is also terrific in the upcoming heist picture, Widows. The overall look of the film is swell. Producers are Goddard and Jeremy Latcham. 20th Century Fox releases it Friday.
Do you plan to see Bad Times at the El Royale? Let us know what you think.