BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE Review: No Destination Worth Visiting
The titular El Royale hotel is a setting deserving to host the events of a better movie. Already draped in the faded glory of the atomic ‘50s, the Lake Tahoe venue is divided perfectly down the middle by a red line representing the border between the states of California and Nevada. Guests can choose a room in either state, and enjoy entertainment appropriate for the laws of each in the lobby; one can do their gambling on the Nevada side, but would have to enjoy their drink in California, which they can do by simply walking across the room. The construction is the first of many thematic signposts pointing to duality and the absurdity of operating purely in terms of binary systems, including - especially - human morality.
The explanation I just gave for what Bad Times at the El Royale is actually all about is more coherent than anything you’ll glean from watching the movie yourself. Writer and director Drew Goddard drops a group of strangers into the setting and then sits back to watch whatever dark, sinister goings-on spill out from there. As you would guess, none of the strangers are quite who they say they are, and most of them have a true purpose for being there different than what we’re told. Jeff Bridges hides behind a priest’s collar, seeming shifty for more reasons than one. Jon Hamm slathers on a Southern charm, introducing himself as a vacuum salesman. He’s actually a lawman who finds more going on than the equipment he came to collect. A foul-mouthed hippie, played by Dakota Johnson, rolls up with a hidden hostage in tow - or maybe she isn’t a hostage. Cynthia Erivo portrays a struggling singer just passing through, representing the only member of the ensemble without anything to hide or redeem.
Much like in his directorial debut, the splattery and witty deconstructed horror flick The Cabin in the Woods, Goddard establishes a setting with a dual nature hidden from the main characters. It’s not hidden for so long, as multiple characters soon discover the two-way mirrors and hidden hallways of the hotel’s rooms. As much as he’s interested in basic morality, Goddard’s just as interested in a degree of voyeurism, of some outside force watching and manipulating events. The narrative seems to be heading to that same destination as the film plays with flashbacks and double-backs to show events from different perspectives. These tricks are nifty. They’d be even more so if they didn’t drag out the runtime and wreck the pace. Doubly so if they actually amounted to any coherent meaning.
Once Chris Hemsworth’s Manson-esque cult leader swaggers his way into the film at the halfway point, the film’s course takes a dramatic turn, discarding most everything the plot had been building toward. His presence immediately livens the film, grinning from ear-to-ear and dancing shirtlessly to Deep Purple between dispatching guests and delivering threats. His charisma perfectly compliments the playful dialogue he’s given to deliver in the film’s standout, murderous setpiece involving a ruthless use of a roulette wheel.
But as much fun as Hemsworth is having, and as infectious as his energy is, his presence also complicates the film’s meaning. It might even break it. Goddard puts several philosophical diatribes into his mouth, to the point that the character, the most despicable of the entire ensemble, begins to serve as the mouthpiece for the film’s ideas. He rails against God and basic morality and the notion that right can be truly differentiated from wrong. All of this is done while the character serves as a vehicle for the very cruelty the film seems set against. The climax begins to serve more as just punishment for these sinners who’ve arrived in their own personal purgatory. Or maybe it’s hell. I don’t think the movie even knows. The nervously fretting lobby boy makes mention of a mysterious “management” dictating his activities in the hotel, an allusion that is never paid off. Perhaps that is the point. There may be no management, just as there may be no God dictating a moral compass or redemption. Or whatever. “Let’s have an allegory,” Hemsworth flippantly remarks at one point. Sure. Let’s. But let’s nail one really, exceptionally well. Goddard threw in ten.
Bad Times at the El Royale is currently playing in theaters everywhere.