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Friday, October 12, 2018

Bad Times at the El Royale

You have to hand it to writer-director, Drew Goddard - He refuses to be pigeonholed into a single genre.  Kicking off his screenwriting career with Cloverfield, he quickly moved on to The Cabin in the Woods, and then The Martian.  Now, he taps into his inner-Tarantino with Bad Times at the El Royale, a mystery thriller that embraces some good ideas, even more strange ones, and basically serves as an excuse for its star-studded cast to run crazy, their faces frequently bloodied, through a hotel that sits right on the California-Nevada border.

The El Royale Hotel, which serves as the film's sole setting aside from a few random flashback scenes, looks as if it is past its prime.  It once was a popular destination for gamblers and thrill seekers, but after it lost its gambling license, it now sits virtually empty, and only has one employee on hand.  This is the mild-mannered Miles (Lewis Pullman), who despite his youthful and calm exterior, seems quite jumpy and haunted by a lot of personal demons that will be revealed during the course of the night the film is set.  A group of guests show up all at once, and just like Miles, they all seem to be haunted by their own personal demons, and may not be who they say they are.  The first three guests arrive at the same time, and include a traveling salesman (Jon Hamm), a singer (stage actress Cynthia Erivo, who makes quite the impression here), and a Catholic priest (Jeff Bridges) who claims his memory isn't what it used to be, and he often forgets things.  They are soon joined by a young woman (Dakota Johnson), who signs the hotel register book with an obscenity instead of her name.

The guests check into their rooms, and almost immediately start undertaking some mysterious acts or behavior when they think no one is watching them.  The priest starts tearing up his room to get at the floorboards underneath the carpet, the young woman reveals that she's brought a female hostage with her in her car and ties her to a chair in the room, and the salesman starts an investigation, as he is secretly working for the FBI.  This is a movie that builds itself around secrets, and people not being honest with others or themselves.  Even the hotel itself has secrets, as there are hidden corridors that allow people to look into each individual room through a set of one-way mirrors.  The singer seems to be the only one who is what she says she is, but she'll be dragged into her own mystery soon enough.  As all of these characters come together, and a storm intensifies outside trapping everyone into the confines of the El Royale, we start to anticipate learning the truth.

And Goddard keeps us guessing for quite a while, due to the fact that he shoots the film out of sequence.  We're introduced to these characters, see what seems to be strange behavior from them, and then we learn more about them, either through flashbacks, or by the movie backtracking and filling us in on information through a different character's point of view.  This is a movie that is constantly switching viewpoints.  Each guest has his or her own unique storyline, and as the different characters and plots intersect, the pieces of the story start to fall into place and make more sense mostly.  I say "mostly", because Goddard seems to love how clever his script is, and he delights in pulling the rug out from under us.  Just when we think we have these characters figured out, he reveals something else.  And just when we think we know how the film is going to end up, Chris Hemsworth shows up in the third act as a crazed cult leader with ties to one of the guests, and he spends a majority of the last half of the film torturing everybody with insane glee.

It's during this third act that Bad Times at the El Royale starts to flounder.  Up to then, the movie had been kind of an exhilarating little mystery, and I enjoyed learning about these people as the truth was revealed layer by layer.  But then Hemsworth shows up, and while his performance is fine, his whole character and sequence kind of drags things down.  The movie loses a bit of its kinetic energy, and bogs things down for a very long final stretch of a nearly two and a half hour long film.  Still, the movie can be very sharp.  Maybe not as sharp as Tarantino's best writing, which this movie clearly wishes to emulate, and not as funny either, but it gets the dialogue, the music, and the characters right for the most part.  It's also kind of a laid back film, up until the last half hour.  The thrill comes in figuring out these people, and their connections with one another.  Once we get our answers, they're satisfying enough, but still feel a bit cheapened by the introduction of Hemsworth and the direction he takes the film.

This is one of those movies you're amazed even got backed by a major studio.  It's a quirky, bloody film drowning in dialogue and shady characters who will team up, betray and murder each other at some point - sometimes all in the same scene, it seems.  The movie is at its best when we are playing along with it, and trying to figure it all out.  Once the answers come, it can be a bit of a let down, but you still had fun getting there.

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