Bad Times at the El Royale

BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE. Starring:  Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo, Dakota Johnson, and Jon Hamm, and Chris Hemsworth. Directed by Drew Goddard. Rated MA 15+. Restricted. (Strong violence). 141 min.

This American mystery thriller focuses on a group of strangers with secrets they want to hide. They come together at a broken-down hotel at Lake Tahoe, which straddles the borders of the states of California and Nevada in the US.

The El Royale is a hotel where the rich and famous have partied and gambled hard. The state border-line runs through its lobby. Gambling is allowed on one side, and drinking on the other. Rooms can be rented by the hour, and guests can stay in rooms decorated as Nevada, or as California. Guests can be spied upon in their rooms whenever “management” wants to do so.

Each of the stranger’s secrets is revealed in flashbacks, that sometimes turn around on themselves and look back on events that have just happened. Most are resolved in violence. None of the strangers are what they seem to be, and events at the El Royale are macabrely bizarre. Seemingly innocuous beginnings devolve suddenly into murder, and the hotel, with its sordid past, has an elaborate secret of its own - a hidden tunnel, that runs through the hotel, provides access to the rooms via one-way mirrors, so that guests can be observed doing whatever they are doing.

The strangers, wanting a room, include an ageing criminal, masquerading as a Catholic priest (Jeff Bridges); a vacuum cleaner salesman, who works for an intelligence agency, Seymour Laramie, (Jon Hamm); a struggling, talented nightclub singer, Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo), who sings in the movie; and a sullen young woman, Emily Summerspring, (Dakota Johnson), who arrives with a kidnapped girl in the trunk of her car. As they settle into their rooms, strange things happen outside. One hour into the movie, Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth), a charismatic, hippie cult leader arrives with his “family” in tow. When what’s left of the strangers and cult members meet, the final scenes become very gruesome, in “Pulp Fiction” (1994), Quentin Tarantino style.

The film mixes 1960s dark comedy in “noir” fashion with paranoia and nostalgia. Sudden deaths and bad luck dog everyone. The film has a lot of violence, and soulful music is sung loudly by Cynthia Erivo, as Darlene Sweet. It is  a movie where style rules over substance, but impressively so. With constant twists and surprises, thriller events with an emotional punch escalate in pace, and for most of the movie the viewer is kept guessing how the plot line will bring it all together.

This is a very self-aware movie that is cleverly directed by Drew Goddard who brought us the horror film, “The Cabin in the Woods” (2012), which also starred Chris Hemsworth. In this film, there are frequent references to the after-life, heaven and hell, and the poor chance of redemption for those who have sinned. The ultimate fate of the strangers and cult members is that, whatever they do, they really don’t want to stay with each other in this world, or the next.

This unpredictable thriller plays fast and loose with the paranormal. It deals with the erraticism of cult beliefs, religion as a menacing force, the threat of hell, and queries whether anyone behaving like these people can ever redeem themselves. The movie twists and turns around the themes of religion, race, war, and spying. It vacillates between offering us a social commentary on modern times, playing homage to crime thrillers of the past, and exploring the way Hollywood tries to cope with “bad times”. The El Royale can be seen as a microcosm of America trying to atone for what it sees as sins of the past, reminding us of Richard Nixon, and the Vietnam war.

This is a thriller that provides a very dark ride. It speaks to feelings of paranoia in a culture of spying, and the film is saying that it is not sure what kind of after-life, the characters in the movie really deserve. It gives a totally cynical view about Christian beliefs. As cinema, however, the film is a bizarre accomplishment that is stylish in its execution.

Peter W.Sheehan is Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting

Twentieth Century Fox

Released October 11th., 2018