Bad Times at the El Royale

Studio: 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Jan 09, 2019 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

Lake Tahoe’s famous El Royale Hotel has seen better times. The once-glitzy hangout of Hollywood and Las Vegas’ celebrity elite – Marilyn Monroe, Ronald Reagan, the Rat Pack – is situated on the exact border between Nevada and California, with a literal state line dividing it down the center. Guests have their choice of staying in the warm sunshine of California, or to enjoy the many hedonistic extravagances associated with our country’s premier casino state. It was a gimmick that attracted the rich and famous the world over – that is, until the El Royale’s gambling license expired, the crowds flocked elsewhere, and the hotel quickly fell out of its former glamour.

By 1969 the El Royale is but a shell of its former self, staffed by a single desk clerk (Lewis Pullman) and with its rooms regularly found empty. That is, until six lost souls converge there seeking lodging on the same fateful night. There’s Father Flynn (Jeff Bridges), an ex-con posing as a man of the cloth; Laramie Sullivan (Jon Hamm), by all appearances a pushy vacuum salesman. Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo) is a lounge singer on her way to a low-paying gig; the Summerspring sisters (Dakota Johnson and Cailee Spaeny) are fleeing a criminal past. Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth), the El Royale’s final visitor, is its most dangerous: a charismatic, Manson-like cult leader with a hypnotic hold on his followers.

This directorial debut from screenwriter Drew Goddard (Cabin in the Woods, Cloverfield, The Martian) is a film noir thrill ride, playing with the tropes of an old-fashioned genre in a way that hasn’t felt this modern since the early career of Quentin Tarantino and the better Pulp Fiction imitators which followed. Its greatest achievement is that it remains surprising while playing with half-a-century-old archetypes; each member of the ensemble keeps you guessing what their next move will be, and the script deftly shirks most of the obvious choices. A twisting, turning, frequently shocking crime story, El Royale is a sure crowd-pleaser.

The home video edition of Bad Times at the El Royale sports an image gallery and a Making Of documentary, the latter of which rightly puts emphasis on the movie’s intricate production design. A lavish, ‘60s-era road motel was built entirely on a sound stage, giving the actors and filmmakers a chance to let loose in an environment that never feels anything less than legitimate; detailing the process which went into its execution is one of the most interesting facets of production they could have covered.


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