Despite its title, you’re actually in for a good time at the El Royale.
Bad Times at the El Royale (BTATER) starts off with a back story. We see someone going to great pains to hide a bag of money under the floorboards of what looks like a room in a hotel, subsequently meeting an untimely end.
Fast forward 10 years, to 1969 and we see the El Royale hotel in all its glory. Straddling the border between Nevada and California, the hotel’s legend is that it used to be a popular hot spot back in the day. Once frequented by the likes of Sammy Davis Jnr and his Rat Pack crew, the hotel has now fallen to ruin and run by harried young bellboy, receptionist, porter, bartender, facilities/maintenance manager, ‘Miles‘ (Lewis Pullman).
Twin Peaks fans will immediately get the vibe at the El Royale. Things aren’t quite what they seem, its random late night arrivals not helping the weird vibe in the air. Arriving under their individual clouds of suspicion, the hotel’s new guests include, soul singer ‘Darlene Sweet‘ (Cynthia Erivo), priest ‘Father Daniel Flynn‘ (Jeff Bridges), archetypical travelling salesman ‘Laramie Seymour Sullivan‘ (Jon Hamm), and a young woman we are introduced to by the name she signs in under “f**k you” (Dakota Johnson).
With the hotel’s sparse / kitsch decor split in half by the actual gaudy red borderline painted down the middle of its reception. One side California, where it’s sunny, has a liquor license and rooms cost a dollar more, the other side, Nevada, dull but full of hope, you can’t drink on the Nevada side so if you want to whet your whistle you have step over into California. The guests have to decide which side they want to ponder their next move. As they settle into their chosen rooms, we see Sullivan make a strange discovery. There’s a hidden corridor which allows ‘someone‘ to watch/spy on each room. Whilst investigating where the corridor takes him, Sullivan sees a few things which have him startled… and that’s where it all kicks off.
You’d think that from the first scene with the burying of the money, that Bad Times at the El Royale is pretty straightforward. ‘Ahh obviously, these people all know about the money and have been sent to collect it‘… In a series of quite unexpected twists and backstory reveals, BTATER sets itself up to be predictable but instead dismisses your expectations with a strong blow to the head. We’re later introduced to “f**k you’s” younger sister ‘Ruth’ and Chris Hemsworth taking a break from wielding Thor’s hammer to play cult leader ‘Billy Lee‘. Each El Royale visitor has something they need to reckon with. The El Royale hotel serving as a novelty confessional box or possibly a waiting room in purgatory. With strong performances from the entire cast the film is a thorougly entertaning watch.
Covering a range of issues and themes, race, religion, sin, paedophilia, cults, war and PTSD, mortality and luck it’s difficult to think about what’s not good about BTATER. It’s possibly a bit heavy and lopsided on the showing of some of the character backstory. It does well enough with the ambiguity, that it could get away with not telling us all we possibly need to know to ‘get it‘. However, there are a few characters who could have done with some literal establishing of how they got to this particular point in their lives. Maybe. Possibly the ending was a little too neat and tidy considering everything which happens.
The stand out performance comes from British Black actress Cynthia Erivo. At first, it’s a bit obvious, get a Tony award winning West End / Broadway singer to join the cast to play a singer. Also obvious the only black character to have a backstory tied to music and wanting to be famous. But what’s not obvious is how well placed Erivo’s character Darlene is. Though race is mentioned, Darlene isn’t portrayed as a ‘po’ struggling hard done by black woman.’ She’s determined to reach her destiny and no one is going to take her for a fool. We are also blessed to hear Erivo’s voice. The same voice which held its own alongside Oscar-winning Jennifer Hudson, whilst playing ‘Celie‘, to Hudson’s ‘Shug Avery‘ in the Broadway production of ‘The Color Purple‘. What’s so clever about the use of Erivo in this is a wonderful scene where just when you think, hmm are they overdoing it with the singing … you’re sucked back in with the quickness.
This is a TBB must watch. You will be entertained.
Bad Times at the El Royale
Director: Drew Goddard
Writer: Drew Goddard
Cast: Cynthia Erivo, Jon Hamm, Jeff Bridges, Chris Hemsworth, Dakota Johnson, Lewis Pullman
UK release date: Friday 12th October 2018