“Quentin Tarantino would be proud”. That was the immediate mindset I had whilst watching Bad Times at the El Royale, a stylish noir-like mystery that flirts with multiple genres and, like its plethora of characters, shouldn’t be taken at face value.
Set in 1969 at the El Royale, a run-down hotel that straddles the state lines of both California and Nevada, the film initially places focus on a quartet of strangers – a priest (Jeff Bridges), a travelling salesman (Jon Hamm), a rebellious young woman (Dakota Johnson), and a lounge singer (Cynthia Erivo) – who have all sought shelter for various reasons. It goes without saying that none of their fronts are in line with their true selves, but dammit if they don’t do their best to keep up appearances.
Another of those films that’s best viewed where you know nothing of what’s to transpire, El Royale never stays exactly on the course you’d expect. And much like writer/director Drew Goddard’s previous effort The Cabin in the Woods, it’s the mash-up of genres and own self-awareness that keeps the film from crumbling underneath it’s own ambitious weight.
Keeping in tune with the Tarantino vibe it evokes through its episodic structure and superb soundtrack (the film is littered with the sounds of the sixties, from Frankie Valli to Deep Purple), it’s the ensemble cast’s willingness to play with the oft-times startling material that proves El Royale‘s finest asset. Though very much a collaborative effort, Bridges and Erivo stand as the film’s key players, with Erivo particularly impressing as a soul singer immediately suspicious of her fellow El Royale patrons. Quick to wield a bottle of whiskey as a weapon if need be and refusing to lower herself to helpless victim standards, this is the epitome of a star-making role, and her push-pull mentality with Bridges’ not-of-the-collar priest lend the film some of its sharpest moments.
Of course, I couldn’t get through this admittedly vague review without mentioning Chris Hemsworth. Playing a Charles Manson-esque cult leader who essentially serves as the film’s climactic magnet to which the other characters orbit, the actor utilises both his charm and abs to maximum effect with a performance that is only heightened by his aesthetic fortune. He’s a larger-than-life figure and suitably terrifying in his volatile unpredictability, matched only by the unnerving Lewis Pullman (son of actor Bill Pullman) as the hotel’s clerk who, as we are constantly reminded, has done some terrible, terrible things.
Whilst not a film that will whet everyone’s appetite, I was personally engulfed by Goddard’s effort. If you have an acquired taste and can handle unorthodox story structure, Bad Times at the El Royale could be the great time at the cinemas you’re searching for. And if not, there’s always Hemsworth’s chest to keep you invested.
About Bad Times at the El Royale
Seven strangers, each with a secret to bury, meet at Lake Tahoe’s El Royale, a rundown hotel with a dark past. Over the course of one fateful night, everyone will have a last shot at redemption… before everything goes to hell.
Bad Times at the El Royale (MA15+) is screening in Australian theatres from 11th October 2018.