Bad Times at the El Royale is set in the late 1960s, something of a turning point in America’s history. It was a tumultuous time that in many ways saw the death of the American Dream: Martin Luther King Jr. assassinated, the Kennedy curse in full swing, Tricky Dicky in the White House and the summer of love taking a turn for the sinister with the Charles Manson cult murders. Simultaneously though, it was a vibrant time for all things cultural, and it’s this era-specific dichotomy that writer-director Drew Goddard (Cabin in the Woods) physically manifests in more ways than one; a duality that permeates both the characters and the film’s true protagonist – the titular, past-its-heyday hotel which straddles the California-Nevada border. There, on a stormy night, four suspiciously one-dimensional individuals check in: an elderly priest (Jeff Bridges), a world-weary soul singer (Cynthia Erivo), a traveling vacuum salesman (Jon Hamm) and a temperamental hippie (Dakota Johnson). Of course, like the hotel itself, nothing is at it seems, with each stranger’s double life and duplicitous agenda gradually rising to the surface.
This Agatha Christie-esque set-up paves the way not only for Goddard’s valentine to the 1960s – with a fantastic soundtrack chock-a-block with Motown hits – but the filmmaker’s pulpy homage to the noir genre. He keeps you hooked on the central mystery as the plot unfolds with careful precision, with the twists and revelations making their mark. Goddard is also a dab hand at orchestrating a violent set piece – the film’s sudden jolts of brutality are truly bracing.
Other flourishes are similarly Tarantino-esque: the use of chapter headings, the chronologically muddled backstories, and the predilection for colourful language. The dialogue fizzles with great one-liners, although some attempts at biting humour fall a little flat. Elsewhere, certain beats that might have been satisfyingly played for dark laughs end up feeling rather earnest, especially in the final act. It’s this climactic section that really lets the film down, with the inclusion of a disappointingly undercooked subplot featuring a Manson stand-in (Chris Hemsworth) that could have done with polishing or even editing out.
Some may emerge feeling that the whole is less than the sum of its parts. Certainly, some character arcs are more scattershot than others, with Jon Hamm getting a raw deal with a sharply curtailed storyline, and one character’s last-minute Vietnam backstory proving another misstep. That said, the plot is executed with care, and the ensemble cast is terrific on the whole. Broadway actress Cynthia Erivo shines brightest of all, with charisma and talent to spare in her debut feature performance, one that also sees her deliver beautiful renditions of some of the soundtrack’s signature tunes.
Bad Times At The El Royale | Directed by Drew Goddard (US, 2018), with Cynthia Erivo, Jeff Bridges, Dakota Johnson, Jon Hamm. Starts October 11.
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