As its fiftieth anniversary approaches, it seems fair to say, at least in cinematic terms, America is having a re-reckoning with 1969. A year of inspirational triumph with the moon landings and ghastly horror with the Manson family, we’ve recently seen an uptick in space travel movies and a veritable glut of Charles Manson content, and it’s in this climate of cult-induced fear that Bad Times at the El Royale operates. A grown up thriller with something to say, El Royale is exactly the kind of clever, non-franchise entertainment that audiences claim to be clamouring for before ignoring entirely, but it would be incredibly heartening to see it find the large following it deserves.
Set over one long night of deception and simmering tensions, El Royale chucks seven strangers into the titular hotel, stranded by sabotaged cars and a raging storm that prevents anyone from walking anywhere. In the marketing, Chris Hemsworth’s perpetually shirtless cult leader Billy Lee has been touted as the wildcard of the bunch, but the truth is that every character fills that role. From upbeat salesman Laramie Sullivan (Jon Hamm) to suspicious priest Father Flynn (Jeff Bridges) and singer Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo), no one is who they seem, except maybe runaway sisters Emily and Rose Summerspring (Dakota Johnson and Cailee Spaeny), whose chaotic arrival sets the stage.
To delve any further into the plot would be to spoil a story that has been kept admirably vague in the trailers – one of the primary joys of Drew Goddard’s script is how unpredictable it is without feeling like he’s just chucking in surprises for the hell of it. The plentiful twists and turns are organic, every players’ actions informed by strong character work that keeps things grounded and believable. There might be a couple of unnecessary detours in the nearly two and a half hour runtime, but for the most part this is a tautly drawn thriller that enthrals and entertains throughout.
Goddard’s dialogue is just as riveting as his plotting, funny and sharp and conscious of its context. This is never more pronounced than in Darlene’s story. While everyone is on edge, she’s particularly wired, the inherent danger of the situation exacerbated by her status as the only black resident of the motel and the deference she is obliged to show. Erivo repays the script with a fantastic performance – with this and Widows she’s having an amazing debut year – absolutely nailing a climactic monologue that cuts to the core of just how pathetic all cult leaders and self-proclaimed messiahs are.
She and Bridges are the highlights of the cast, though Hemsworth is a lot of fun and Lewis Pullman impresses as the flustered desk clerk who appears be the El Royale’s sole employee. Bridges is layered and tragic, bringing Flynn to vivid life, an aging conman who’s looking to let more kindness into his life but is not sure how. Hamm and Johnson both bring a magnetic cool factor to proceedings, even if each of them is a little underused.
Though it’s in his writing that Goddard is strongest, his direction of El Royale is also more than solid, especially when it comes to the violence. It’s consistently savage and shocking (more than one instance will have you gasping and recoiling) but never gratuitous, often over as soon as it’s started. There are some fantastic tracking shots and the geography of the hotel is established very well, shot gorgeously by Seamus McGarvey. Soundtrack-wise, there’s pretty much a perfect song selection, effectively evoking the end of the ‘60s without sounding like every other film set in the decade.
A mash up of classic, rain-slicked noir and an And Then There Were None-esque single location murder drama, El Royale subverts these genres to a point, but also does its fair share of crowdpleasing. Some of these moments are a bit too ‘deus ex machina’, cathartic in the moment but slightly silly in retrospect, but that doesn’t mean they’re not hugely enjoyable. One of the year’s most purely entertaining movies, one can only hope that Goddard’s slice of stylish ‘60s mayhem does well enough to signal that original filmmaking like this is still desirable.