There is without question a sense of staleness to certain film genres. Thankfully we have Drew Goddard to freshen them up even just a little. As seen with his surprise 2012 debut ‘The Cabin in the Woods’ Goddard was able to bring front all the tropes on horror films with a new perspective and even give some form of explanation for years of terrible takes in the genre. Well the man has done it again this time with the old crime genre. In a time where this genre is over taken by likes of Tarantino and every filmmaker trying to be Tarantino it is a warm welcome to see another filmmaker ignore the modern assessment of it and instead bring back the old studio risk films that died out in the 90’s. Bad Times at the El Royale is a callback to the overstuffed, but patient films that take a look at morality through chaos and ultra-violence. In other words; studios get on board, these are the films you should be making.
The setting is 1960’s as told to us by the wonderful amount of oldie hits that would give the ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ soundtrack a run for its money. The 60’s were a time where secrets were being exposed and it becomes instantly clear that the characters in this film all come with their own secrets and grotesque behavior. After all, for there to be “bad times” there must be bad people. First up is Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges) a priest who is slowly losing his memory making himself wonder why he chose the El Royale for his place of sleep this night. He is a friendly man who quickly makes the acquaintance of soul singer Darlene Sweet (an excellent Cynthia Ervio). Ms. Sweet is on her way to Reno with hopes of becoming a star and while we have seen this character many times before it is Ervio who brings true honesty to the performance as she belts out haunting vocals to such oldie hits as The Isley Brothers’ “This Old Heart of Mine.” The hotel, much like the cabin in the woods, holds its own secrets. The El Royale as explained by the bellboy who runs the entire hotel (Lewis Pullman) use to be the hottest spot known for its cash grab gimmick that the hotel runs straight through the dive line of Nevada and California giving the guests the option to stay in either state. As Pullman’s character Miles also explains the hotel use to house such famous guests as Frank Sinatra and Marylin Monroe. Once a novelty it is now a relic lost in time, which makes it the perfect spot for a shady vacuum salesman (Jon Hamm doing his best but never fully fitting into his role) and a mysterious woman (Dakota Johnson) with some baggage in her trunk that she can’t afford to lose. It is obvious to the audience that not all these characters will live to see the sun rise the next day, but what makes this premise so appealing is that we quickly find ourselves caring about every character something seen more in Hitchcock than Tarantino.
The film in an even more attempt to be Agatha Christie breaks its film apart using title cards to allow us to enter each room. The first room quickly has Jon Hamm’s character finding a secret underground corridor that features two way mirrors into every room. To say what Hamm does with this this new information would only spoil everything and while there never is that big reveal that we saw in “Cabin in the Woods’ there are still plenty of fun surprises to move this 140 minute mystery along. The rest of the guests quickly start to wonder what kind of hotel they have found themselves in (the term ‘pervert hotel’ is used an exhausting amount) but what truly makes this fun is that the characters are not terrified to be spied on by some pervert, but by the mere fact of being watched having their secrets exposed. And while each character is nervous every second of the film it takes quite a while for any true secrets to be exposed. You must give credit to a major studio willing to tale their time which is clearly seen in one of the more exciting long shots of Hamm walking past each room, everyone else unaware all to the vocals of Ervio singing the same verse over and over again.
The film progresses, people get killed, Xavier Dolan plays an obnoxious music producer (with a cringe inducing attempt at an accent) and eventually Chris Hemsworth’s Charles Manson-esque character enters and dances to Deep Purple chest exposed. But what drives this film is Goddard’s playful characters that we never want to see exit the film. No we are not crying when one of them takes a bullet, but there is definitely the feeling of remorse or even anger that we can no longer watch on screen, but maybe that’s what studio films are missing today, characters for us to judge and eventually find a way to forgive because that notion alone is hard to do in real life, so for now lets stick to doing it at the movies.