Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE
Writer-director Drew Goddard wrestles with heavy concepts in BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE: the duality of human nature and our ongoing philosophical debate over right and wrong. Not only are these topics discussed by the characters, but they also reflect the changing socio-political and musical landscape of the story’s 1960s setting. In this noir-soaked crime-thriller, these themes permeate the increasingly-dangerous scenarios, creating an astute allegory for the world outside the once-sparkling, titular enclave. While those subtle smarts make certain sequences sing, others wind up outstaying their welcome.
In its heyday, Lake Tahoe’s kitschy El Royale motel was a beacon symbolizing hope and progress – a hidden hideaway that attracted politicians and Hollywood glitterati. By 1969, it’s a neglected relic sitting in a lonely state of hopeless disrepair. The ramshackle, bifurcated retreat straddles the California and Nevada border and, like the country as a whole, will experience further division when its denizens comingle in the lounge. These include manager Miles (Lewis Pullman) and guests Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges), singer Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo), traveling vacuum salesman Laramie Seymour Sullivan (John Hamm), hippie Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson), her younger sister Rosie (Cailee Spaeny) and magnetic manipulator Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth). Though it remains a fairly clean establishment, it hides loads of dirty secrets. And on one dark and stormy night, these strangers will uncover its shady past, as well as unpack the physical and emotional baggage they’ve brought with them.
Goddard peppers the picture with a slew of subtle dichotomies: An unwatched lounge television blares faux news reports on a scandalous “Malibu murder,” but also very real news showing Nixon fielding questions about the Vietnam War. The motel itself is a symbol for America – once viewed as a beacon of optimism, but losing its luster after times of turmoil. Even the archetypal divide between “square” Sullivan and hippies Emily and Rosie is briefly, subversively addressed. However, Goddard yanks the carpet from under the audience when self-righteous, deranged Billy Lee demands that his captives choose between the two colors on a Roulette wheel – upending the fallacy that human nature is either black or white, good or evil.
Goddard speaks volumes with the ways he utilizes the decade’s shifting musical soundtrack, from the soulful buoyancy of Motown (Erivo sings on-screen, beautifully knocking it out of the park), to gritty rock n’ roll (like Deep Purple’s “Hush” and The Box Top’s “The Letter”). Danny Glicker’s costume designs also aid in the characters’ cover-ups, providing delightful juxtaposition: Emily is a tough chick, but that leather and denim act as armor shielding her open heart. While Father Flynn’s saintly costume hides a dastardly sin, Darlene’s peppy yellow wardrobe cloaks her simmering anger, frustration and sorrow. Her most palpable act is when she takes off her rain-soaked wig and sings “You Can’t Hurry Love.” This is also where editor Lisa Lassek’s crisp cuts come into play, infusing this diorama with exciting energy. And finally, Seamus McGarvey’s cinematography, specifically in the El Royale’s lounge area, echoes two color palettes – warm yellows and cool blues.
All of the above certainly jazzes up the fairly basic, unwieldy narrative, but also overwhelms it, leading to a bloated run time. Goddard takes forever to set up some pieces on the chess board and then rushes through others. Darlene’s backstory lingers when its point is understood in mere minutes, yet Miles’ affecting tale – one that mirrors the hotel’s abandonment – is gone in 60 seconds. We’re far ahead of Father Flynn’s flashback thanks in part to the cold open, but also through the hints he clumsily drops. While it’s a pleasure to see Bridges play his role with pathos and poignancy, his vignette feels narratively rote. There’s a repetitive quality having a few similarly toned, elongated sequences set in the motel’s secret concrete corridor. Plus, Goddard relies on a highly dubious, intelligence-insulting convenience that funnels to an easy way out of a difficult situation in the final act.
There’s a snappy two hour movie in this. It’s just too bad Goddard couldn’t find it.
BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE opens on October 12.