‘Bad Times at the El Royale’ Review
There are Bad Times at the El Royale and good times for us, the audience. Especially if you’re a fan of Hitchcock. This new film from director Drew Goddard takes some clear inspiration from Psycho and Rear Window. Don’t get me wrong though: this movie has its own spirit of suspense.
Like an Agatha Christie novel, we are introduced to most of the characters from the outset. Father Flynn (Jeff Bridges), African American singer Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo), vacuum salesman Laramie Sullivan (Jon Hamm) and a hippie who signs her name as ‘FUCK YOU’ (Dakota Johnson) are checking into El Royale, a motel being managed by Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman). El Royale is a motel stretching both sides of the California/Nevada border that’s perpetually almost empty due to recently losing its gambling license.
The cross-border nature of the motel furthers the film’s motif of duplicity. Nobody is who they first appear to be, nor is the motel itself. Sullivan soon finds that his room is full of bugs, and not the creepy-crawly kind. This leads him to discover the building’s deepest secrets, as well as those of the other guests. Eventually, the El Royale welcomes one more guest -cult leader Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth, reuniting with the director who gave him his big break).
El Royale is very good at maintaining a noir atmosphere. Hamish Purdy created a beautiful set that screams Rat Pack-era Vegas. The film does a great job of maintaining suspense throughout the 2.5-hour runtime. There was a scene with Sweet singing and a hammer swinging that’s a masterpiece of both suspense and timing. You get to see another pivotal moment with Sullivan from three different characters’ perspectives.
This kind of film, where all the characters’ stories are tangled together in a nonlinear way, is hard to pull off, but Goddard and the cast succeed here. Jeff Bridges and Chris Hemsworth were both magnetic, as two preachers from opposite sides of the same coin. One of the film’s themes is the question of faith and how its spell can both redeem and crush its believers. Special kudos must be given to relative Hollywood newcomers Cynthia Erivo and Lewis Pullman (son of Bill Pullman). Erivo’s quiet suffering and beautiful singing largely drive the heart of the film, while Pullman quite convincingly sells the broken soul that is Miles Miller.