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In Theaters: BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE (2018)

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BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE
(US - 2018)

Written and directed by Drew Goddard. Cast: Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo, Chris Hemsworth, Dakota Johnson, Jon Hamm, Cailee Spaeny, Lewis Pullman, Nick Offerman, Xavier Dolan, Shea Whigham, Mark O'Brien, Jim O'Heir, Charles Halford, Manny Jacinto, Tally Rodin, William B. Davis, Katharine Isabelle. (R, 141 mins)

A cursory glance at the trailer for BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE would suggest a throwback to the kinds of winking, referential neo-noirs that were commonplace in the post-Tarantino craze of two decades ago (THINGS TO DO IN DENVER WHEN YOU'RE DEAD, 2 DAYS IN THE VALLEY, etc). It's actually more in line with the later phase of Tarantino's career that gave us a motor-mouthed chamber piece like THE HATEFUL EIGHT, but even that isn't a completely accurate assessment since it's not nearly as self-indulgent. Written and directed by J.J. Abrams and Joss Whedon protege Drew Goddard (screenwriter of CLOVERFIELD and THE MARTIAN), EL ROYALE shares many themes and motifs as his previous directing effort, the meta genre deconstruction THE CABIN IN THE WOODS, so much so that as the story begins to play out and the sense of paranoia kicks in, you almost wouldn't be shocked to find Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford observing the goings-on from a secret installation at an undisclosed location and placing bets on who makes it to the end. Goddard also blatantly patterns the structure on vintage Tarantino by dividing the film into chapters and frequently going backwards in the narrative to fill in what was going in at the same time other events have happened, but for the most part, EL ROYALE manages to be its own unique work despite Tarantino's unavoidable influence. It's got a clever, twisty structure with a ton of genuine surprises, a dark sense of humor, shocking bursts of violence, and a game cast, but at nearly two and a half hours, it starts to run on fumes by the end, and the payoff ultimately isn't on the same level as the intricately constructed, densely-plotted build-up.






In a prologue, a man (Nick Offerman) rents a room, pries up the floorboards and stashes a bag full of money before being blown away by an unknown assailant. Cut ahead ten years and it's 1969, and a group of strangers arrive one by one at the El Royale, a dilapidated Lake Tahoe motor lodge that literally straddles the state line, its lobby split down the middle between California and Nevada. There's aspiring singer Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo), who's on her way to Reno for a low-paying gig; aging priest Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges), who says he's visiting his brother in Oakland; obnoxious, good ol' boy vacuum cleaner salesman Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm); and Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson), a hippie with a bad attitude who signs the check-in registry with a "Fuck You." The El Royale has seen better days, having lost its gambling license a year earlier, and there only seems to be one employee running the place in frazzled desk clerk Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman), who frequently goes MIA and ignores the bell, leaving the guests to serve themselves coffee and drinks from the bar. Once in their rooms, it's clear that all of them have something to hide and aren't who they claim to be. Sullivan drops the overbaked Southern accent and makes a phone call before locating and dismantling dozens of bugging devices from everywhere in his room. He finds Miles passed out with a needle in his arm, and in a long, single-take sequence, ventures down a secret corridor behind the office, where he's able to see into each room through a one-way mirror. Darlene is singing, Father Flynn--clearly not a real priest--is tearing up the floorboards, and Emily is dragging a bound and gagged young woman (Cailee Spaeny) in from the trunk of her car. Sullivan goes to a nearby pay phone and calls the FBI. He mentions the apparent kidnapping and is told that "Mr. Hoover" wants him to disregard it, stick to his assignment, make sure no one leaves, and retrieve what he's there to find.






Shot on actual film and with a Michael Giacchino score that often sounds affectionately reminiscent of Bernard Herrmann, BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE is often just as indebted to Hitchcock as it is Tarantino, particularly PSYCHO with its motel setting and the character getting the most screen time in the early going being unexpectedly killed off before the midway point. Others will find the secret corridor and see things they aren't supposed to see, which seems to be the entire purpose of the El Royale's continued existence, a place where bad things go down and equipment is in place to record it all. A classic MacGuffin comes into play in the form of a stag film shot from behind the one-way-mirror looking into one of the rooms, dating back several years and featuring someone both prominent and dead. BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE keeps piling on the twists and turns and is an absolute blast until Goddard loses his way with the third-act, dark-and-stormy-night introduction of Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth), a charismatic, Manson-like cult leader who arrives with murderous goons in tow to find one of his flock who got away from him and is keen to stick around once he sees there's a bag of loot and a potential blackmail reel involved. It's no fault of Hemsworth, who attacks the role with amused gusto, but Billy Lee is a two-dimensional villain with too little screen time to make an impact. So instead of creating a fully-developed character like the ones we've been able to get to know, Goddard lets Hemsworth ham it up and show off by smirking and strutting to Deep Purple's "Hush," while he holds everyone captive and plays roulette with their lives as the film turns into a rote, generic "terrorizing the hostages" scenario.



It's a shame Goddard couldn't figure out a way to give keep the same level of intensity and bring the story to a conclusion worthy of its set-up, but the first 2/3 of the film is so good that the less-inspired and comparatively weak final third can't help but end with a fizzled shrug. It isn't a complete deal-breaker and it's still recommended, but part of the problem is that there's simply no reason for this film to be as long as it is. But it's beautifully shot, has some wonderful production design, and the cast is terrific, particularly Erivo (a Tony-winner for 2015's Broadway musical version of THE COLOR PURPLE) and national treasure Bridges, who lends a convincing weariness to a bad guy who maybe has some redeeming qualities after all. In the end, BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE averages out to a film that's quite good, but for an hour and a half, it flirts with being a great one.

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