After a rather predictable year of predictable films, it sure is refreshing to watch something like Bad Times at the El Royale. A neo-noir/thriller film that prides itself on keeping you on the edge of your seat, biting your nails and guessing what’s going to go down next.
The movie begins with a fixed, locked-down shot of your average motel room. A man enters, carrying only a duffel bag and a loaded gun. We see this man, clearly agitated, meticulously pull back the carpet and furniture, carefully remove the floor boards, and hide the duffel bag underneath the ground. He then seals everything up perfectly the way it was before he arrived. Suddenly, another man barges into the door and murders the first guy in cold blood.
After this jarring sequence we flash forward to ten years later, as several unique individuals check into an isolated, poorly maintained motel known as the El Royale. Among these people are a kindly priest (Jeff Bridges), an outgoing vacuum salesman (Jon Hamm), and a struggling soul singer (Cynthia Erivo). None of whom are exactly as they seem.
Bad Times at the El Royale was the most fun I’ve had at a movie in some time. In theme and concept, it draws inspiration from the style of Quentin Tarantino’s works. Most notably, his isolated mystery/drama film The Hateful Eight. It’s mysterious, neo-noir genre directly contrasts with the upbeat, late 60’s soundtrack. Also artistic in nature is the overlapping sequence of events that we continue to jump between, all separated into different chapters. A neat touch that again hearkens back to Tarantino film’s like Pulp Fiction.
I love when a film can predominantly take place in a single location and still maintain the full attention of the audience. El Royale does this with ease, as the stakes are always high and the mystery always unfolding. But it never unfolds far enough as to give away its many secrets. For example, our character with the clearest, most established motives is killed off early on; taking the more active, investigative moviegoers back to square one in terms of why these events are taking place. We don’t really get “that character” to latch onto from beginning to end, because everyone is shrouded in mystery up until the final act.
To make a perfectly reasonable Jeff Bridges reference, by the end of El Royale I felt like The Dude from The Big Lebowski. Grasping for answers to a rather needlessly complex set of circumstances that our protagonist just so happens to be a part of. A bad case of the “wrong place at the wrong time”. And while the film leaves us with a satisfying conclusion, there’s still plenty of intriguing factors left unexplained for the audience to contemplate. My idea of the prefect ending to a movie.
And at the heart of El Royale we get a moving story about faith and redemption, and what those things can mean to a man. These themes are unmistakable to the right viewer, so long as you’re willing to look that far and read the writing on the walls. There’s also a healthy dose of sociopolitical commentary. It doesn’t slap you across the face and shove morals and messages down your throat till you choke, but those picking up what El Royale is putting down will surely walk away respecting the film a little more.
Bad Times at the El Royale isn’t the kind of movie I recommend skipping over. The complicated plot, long runtime, and moody genre may be enough to steer some people away, but those willing to stick around and invest their time and attention into this picture are sure to enjoy it.
The Verdict: A