Can a gritty crime thriller be both dark and feel-good? Writer/Director Drew Goddard sure thinks so in his swinging ensemble flick Bad Times at the El Royale. A pure delight from start to finish, Bad Times will hit hard at your sweet tooth, but isn’t afraid to swing low and go for your guts. So, grab a piece of pie and get ready to hear some souls sing out.
Lives converge one fateful night in 1969 at the El Royale – a charming 50’s hotel no longer in its hayday. Sitting right on the Nevada/California state line, the El Royale is permanently stuck in identity crisis – and confuddling liquor laws. Once a party destination for gambling, nightlife, and debauchery – the El Royale now only boasts one of those. Debauchery.
Tonight’s party is a small one, but it’s going to blaze the night away. Checking in are southern vacuum salesman Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Jonn Hamm in one of his leftover suits from Mad Men), the adrift Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges), struggling back-up singer Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo), and the cold, closed-off Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson).
One by one we visit in on each of the hotel’s patrons, and we learn the El Royale isn’t quite what it seems. But then again, neither are they. After he discovers a hearty amount of audio recording devices in the Honeymoon suite, we learn Laramie Seymour Sullivan is here on a job. And that job ain’t selling vacuums. An undercover FBI agent, he begins his night sleuthing around – and with the hotel’s only attendant Miles (Lewis Pullman) under the weather, Laramie is quick to discover the hotel’s secrets. ‘What secrets?‘ you ask? Oh, just a hidden hallway with two-way glass spying in on each and every one of the rooms.
Taking a page right out of Goddard’s meta horror-comedy romp Cabin in the Woods (and what we here are Nightmare on Film Street secretly hope is the second installment of a two-way-mirror trilogy), the mirrors in each room allow the El Royale powers that be (and Miles) access to the private lives – and sometimes deaths – of its residents. Laramie is treated to the soulful audition rehearsal of Darlene Sweet, which paints a bluesy backdrop to the remaining discoveries the cold and concrete hideaway holds. We catch Father Flynn ripping up the floorboards in a desperate search for something hidden, before finally stopping on Emily, who’s got herself a captive – a young girl in a bohemian dress with dazed eyes (Cailee Spaeny). Emily ties her up to a hotel chair and waits, armed with a shotgun. It’s clear the young girl is in trouble. Laramie can’t just lay in wait. He’s about to go in there and set this night afire.
As our cast of characters run out the clock ’till checkout time at the El Royale, it’s evident some of them aren’t going to make it out with their lives. And though this ensemble swirl around a final showdown of Tarantino-esque proportions – it remains upbeat and optimistic in a way that crime thrillers rarely achieve. Bad Times at the El Royale is a pleasure to watch from start to finish, from room to room. The impeccably designed set and a never-ceasing jukebox transport you to days of a glittering, emerging Las Vegas, or a burgeoning Reno – only, we’re a decade too late. Our cast is on their A-Game, whether it’s Hamm struggling through a faux-southern drawl, chipping away at Johnson’s icy exterior, or Bridge’s impeccable depiction of the quavering lip and wandering tongue of a man with dementia. There’s also a delightful extended cameo of a charismatic cult leader (Chris Hemsworth), who squeaked-in ahead of the onslaught of Manson adaptations that audiences will be flooded with in the coming months.
“The impeccably designed set and a never-ceasing jukebox transport you to days of a glittering, emerging Las Vegas..”
Crime thrillers typically play out like a card game – players bluffing and trading until the jig is up and they must reveal their hand – but Bad Times at the El Royale embodies the game of roulette. The perfect, fated chaos of a spinning wheel. Everyone is assigned a number, and at the end of the day – it’s up to a little, silver ball to drop where it may. Though there are secrets, and yes, there are lies – the game doesn’t hinge on them. Smart audiences will be able to gather most of the story before it’s revealed. In a card game – this would be disastrous. End the game. Tip the table. Dragged out out to the desert. But El Royale succeeds on a spinning wheel of room numbers, each room entertaining in its own right, colliding to create a delightful, timeless thriller.
Though this ensemble swirl around a final showdown of Tarantino-esque proportions - Bad Times at the El Royale remains upbeat and optimistic in a way that crime thrillers rarely achieve. Bad Times at the El Royale is a pleasure to watch from start to finish, from room to room. The impeccably designed set and a never-ceasing jukebox transport you to days of a glittering, emerging Las Vegas..