Bad Times at the El Royale Movie Review

Bad Times at the El Royale movie poster

Review by Pedro Schwarzenegger (A-)

In Jim Thompson’s 1958 novel The Getaway (a monastic read – don’t sweat it if you’ve never heard of it) he created the fictional fugitive resort community he christened ‘The El Rey.’ (translation: The King) A sanctuary south of the border where those on the lamb could parcel out a 30% portion of their loot for safe haven from the law. Quentin Tarantino borrowed the idea later in his script for From Dusk Till Dawn as the pastoral destination for the Gecko brothers. Essentially The El Rey is an allegory for purgatory. The last stop before the literal last stop. Limbo with a limbo line if you will. In Drew Goddard’s sophomore film he’s calling this place The El Royale. The kindred harbors both hinting at a lurid, underworldly monarchy. Entertaining the condemned regality of mad dogs and rats, and the secrets key to the survival of the hoodlum species.

In Bad Times at the Royale we have a small contingent of strangers – a priest, (Jeff Bridges) a studio session singer, (Cynthia Erivo – stealing this thing) a wayward hippie-chick, (Dakota Johnson) and for all intents and purposes, Don Draper (Jon Hamm) loosened from his corporate and familial moorings – each seeking out this near-bankrupt motel on the fringes of Lake Tahoe for reasons they’d prefer to keep to themselves – and for the sake of spoiling the film, we’ll keep as well. As the night runs its course, and the cheap booze runs as well, they soon learn that the motel has as many hidden chambers and secret vaults as it’s eclectic clientele. Soon the truth is revealed and fresh corpses inevitably litter the art deco furnishings.

This being a Drew Goddard film it bears considering that there might be something a bit more esoteric to this drama. The director/writer did, after all, snuff out his horror film Cabin in the Woods under the heal of ancient wrathful deities. The association with perdition is already built into the title’s lineage, and it certainly seems like our cast of characters deserve some level of divine clemency or damnation. (which, I believe, they each receive as this bad night runs its course) We absolutely shouldn’t ignore the plausibility here of metaphysical undercurrents. But for the average viewer the closest cinematic touchstones will most likely be the aforementioned From Dusk Till Dawn, but also more recently, Smokin’ Aces, Joe Carnahan’s frenetically full tilt assassin’s royal rumble at a single hotel in Lake Tahoe. Thankfully Goddard chose to whittle his cast down to the absolute bare essentials when compared to both of those movies to create something far less splashy, far less messy (in every sense of the adjective) than either from Dusk Till Dawn or Smokin’ Aces, and in turn produces something much more sophisticated. Much more chilled out. Maybe even romantic.

Remove the omnipresent notes of fate and the great hereafter, or the genre convention of a motel full of rejects and killers, and what Drew Goddard has created with Bad Times at the Royale is, at it’s core, a love letter to the American 1960’s. In fact it’s the fundamental reason this films pluralizes Times in its title, and not Time. You see, Bad Times at the El Royale is about much more than one night in a seedy motel. It’s about a trip – sometimes a bummer, sometimes a celebration – through the successes and disasters of the American 1960’s. Which very well may be the most welcome and wonderfully unanticipated aspect of this motion picture.

Who knew you could lament the decade of Woodstock and the moon landing in a single fictional evening gone sideways?

As to why Drew Goddard would choose this forum to wax rhapsodic over events now fifty years into history? It’s less complicated than any of The El Royale‘s tangled plot lines. For Generation X (Goddard was born in 1975) the shadow of the 60’s loomed large over the span of our early development. (I’m a gen-xer as well) Nam. Napalm. Nixon. These were part of Generation X’s shared mythology, with only trace evidence to prove to us that it ever existed at all. Namely all that wonderful folk, rock, and Motown music. We didn’t live through it, but we sort of did through its music and stories. And better still, we wished we had.     

In Bad Times at the El Royale we have only one actor, Jeff Bridges, who was even alive during that era. And as his character Father Flynn is written, he suffers from memory loss and the early thunderheads of dementia. Which is significant all on its own. We can’t trust our communal recollection concerning the 60’s. Our memories are either too rose-tinted or too red. Bad Times at the El Royale contains those disparate hues. Softening their ruddy vibrancy for a palpable vibe. In this place a career criminal can find himself in the role of cleric. Father Flynn is a character built around that duality.

To illuminate the dichotomy of Bridge’s admittedly undependable character and his fellow motel guests Drew Goddard has deliberately arranged a backdrop set in two different states. Half the El Royale belongs to California, the other lies in the state of Nevada. There’s even a large red line painted down the center of the lobby. This residency appears to be just as divided as its residents. Of course this detail is emblematic of good and evil. Yin and yang. Heaven and hell. Or as we may know them, Nevada and California. (you get to choose which is which) The art design intentionally gives us a visual indicator – a thick red line running right between both halves of the motel, with very little room on it for all these different characters to fit onto. Even though that’s exactly the place they feel like they might most belong.

If there’s an innocent in these events it’s Cynthia Erivo’s singer Darlene Sweet. A black soul artist on the wrong side of white record company men looking to peel every dollar they can from the talent before discharging them back to where they found them. Darlene’s the talent. And as it so happens the heart and soul (that word again) of the film. It’s through her voice that we understand the simple, ethereal grace and tragedy of the artist trying to find her place in the amoral melee where art actually started raking in real money.

Not everything was champagne in the 1960’s. Black artists were exploited by media conglomerates, selling out song rights for promotion and a stage. Young women were exploited by neer-do-well sociopaths promising social resistance and upheaval. By the time the film – and in turn, the era it means to encapsulate – nears its final act we’re introduced to Chris Hemsworth’s Billy Lee. We can argue that his inclusion in this film is essentially a great looking pair of tits and some sandy blond hair – but make no mistake, Billy’s in the picture to seduce us. Whether through genetic virtuosity or the insistent expectation of radical violence, Billy Lee’s introduction is to awaken The El Royale out of its euphoric trip down the memory lane of 60’s dreamland and back into stark reality. Billy Lee personifies the death of the national dream.

Call him Gimme Shelter or Helter Skelter. Call him Apocalypse Now. At some point the peace movement turned liverish. Then it turned feral. Billy Lee’s arrival at the El Royale motel, bare chested and armed to the teeth, symbolizes the end of an era. He alone brings the El Royale’s vacillating moral code up to date.

There’s a tiny roll of film at the nucleus of Bad Times at the El Royale. Not so much a McGuffin as a time capsule wired with a detonator. The film roll supposedly evidence that a national hero has been secretly recorded misbehaving with a woman not his wife through one of the Royale’s one-way windows. As to who it is on the film we can only guess. Is it Kennedy? Martin Luther King? Goddard’s script doesn’t tell us. But his treatment of this roll of film – a thing considered more valuable than all of the illicit cash buried under the floorboards of this place – is in a way his central message to us about the 60’s and its rogue’s gallery of personalities. Of course these legends weren’t perfect. They were just as prone to falling as they were to elevating the American dream. But perhaps it’s better for us living fifty years in their aftermath if their secrets were ultimately kept. In the age of instant information – much of it misleading – that’s a provocative ideal.

Bad Times at the El Royale is a much more mature film than I believe its initial grades or first impressions will indicate. If you’re expecting the madhouse ruckus of either Smokin’ Aces or From Dusk Till Dawn look elsewhere. There is plenty of mystery and mayhem behind these doors, but it’s hard to focus on it for very long through the din of All-American mythos. I believe his sophomore film is a step in the right direction for Drew Goddard. He’s still got compelling stories to tell, and compelling ways to tell them. Also it’s difficult to argue with any soundtrack that bears both Deep Purple and The Isley Brothers. For fans of this nearly extinct culture Bad Times at the El Royale is a killer way to spend an evening.

Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.

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