Bad Times at the El Royale is a Decently Good Time

In ninth grade my school did a production of And Then There Were None and while I was jealous of the people in it I immediately fell in love. It’s exactly what a high stakes mystery should be: a set number of characters in a scenario with specific rules. From there all you have to do is continue to turn up the heat and watch them bounce off each other. The play lays out things beautifully – each scene has a significant “turn” to the dramatic situation, while also tightening the screws on those left still alive.

During the opening scene of Bad Times at the El Royale I could not stop thinking about And Then There Were None. A number of characters arrive at a location they don’t recognize. Backstories hang ominously the rafters, but in the moment we’re focused on a cast of shady characters building a spider web of relationships. Immediately we’re trying to figure out who feels what about who, and it’s a character moment and not part of the intrigue except that we’re already nervous about the intrigue that’s coming. The central questions presented here, and throughout the movie, are the same: who knows what about who, when?

To set the scene: Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges) meets singer Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo) in the parking lot of the El Royale, a hotel spanning the border of California and Nevada. Inside the lobby they run into Seymour ‘Laramie’ Sullivan (Jon Hamm), a travelling vacuum salesman, who is anxiously awaiting the arrival of any sort of hotel help. The three share coffee and immediately reveal preferences for friendship and hotel rooms. Even before a car holding Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson) swerves into the parking lot, tensions are high. Everyone seems wary of each other. Everyone is guarded. Everyone holds a secret, including Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman), the single hotel employee.

From there it’s a simple game of slowly peeling back layers. The film handles this section, it’s long opening and middle act (it’s a long film in general), extremely well. There’s nothing wrong with sticking to formulas that work and wisely that’s exactly what writer/director Drew Goddard does. Seymour Sullivan is revealed to be a FBI agent Dwight Broadback. In the honeymoon suite he collects listening devices the FBI installed a year back… but to his surprise finds a secondary set of listening devices installed throughout the room as well. Further investigation leads him to secret tunnels running throughout the hotel, hallways comprised of one-way mirrors allowing anyone to spy into each individual room. Without their knowledge Broadback uncovers a secret about each and every one of his fellow patrons, and these secrets set into motion a series of miscommunications and actions that spiral, as one would hope, out of control.

The movie leans hard into each characters’ subjective understanding of the unfolding chaos, looping back in time continuously to reveal a new set of eyes witnessing the same events from different perspectives. It’s fun, and silly, and nerve wracking, and the dramatic situation evolves constantly (or, in equally good twists, is proven to be different than what we and specific characters believed it to be). Blog contributor Brandon, who saw the movie with me, noted that even the sound is entirely subjective. Numerous fantastic sequences play out in the “spying corridor,” where characters can not only visually spy on rooms but can also switch on and off speakers to hear what’s going on, allowing the audience to watch scenes play out in dead silence or full noise, depending on how a character wants to view it.

Considering how strong its espionage style games are it’s a shame the movie decides to occasionally abandon them. Each character gets a flashback, and nearly all of them are utterly pointless for two reasons. 1) they generally tell us things we could figure out on our own (save for, maybe, Miles Miller’s and a blessedly brief one belonging to a character played by Cailee Spaeny) and therefore only add confirmation to the subtext and 2) they aren’t actually seen by the other characters, and as a result they don’t actually alter the current state of affairs. I’d be extremely happy to watch a cut of this movie without the flashbacks – I am confident it’d be tauter and as a result even more nerve wrackingly fun.

The other major fault is the movie’s third act. Secrets must, sadly, eventually come out, and the game of moving the characters around the board, slowly revealing who they are to each other naturally comes to an end. It’s a sad but unavoidable conclusion, but the movie shoots itself in the foot by burning down the house it’s built and taking a hard left turn where the secrets we’ve slowly been uncovering don’t come into play in any significant way in the final stretch. It’s a truly confounding choice, and the denouement once everything’s been laid bare takes just forever. Maybe it’d feel better in a shorter movie. Who can say? It’s sad, though, to see what has been up to this point be a fantastic paranoid noir via And Then There Were None become just bland action. I’m all for a hard left turn (From Dusk till Dawn) but it may be that the first two-thirds of this movie are simply too good for the weak back third.

Still, good performances, well shot, some true gasps and some true laughs. Bad Times at the El Royale gets 6.5 one way mirrors out of 10 child cult members.

OTHER THOUGHTS:

  • I can honestly say I have never seen a Jon Hamm performance I’ve not enjoyed.
  • It’s hard to overstate how awesome the opening lobby scene is. It’s truly the opening to an absolutely fantastic play (a long sequence of Darlene Sweet and Daniel Flynn eating pie and chatting later echoes what a superb choice it is to simply allow these characters to talk and divulge secrets and feelings). Normally I’m left wishing movies were less like stage plays, but I frequently wished this movie was more like a stage play.
  • I feel I never give enough consideration to the technical aspects of films. This film was good on all those fronts. Nothing stood out to me (the rainy shots in general were nice) but everything felt a touch above average. The wide shot hotel room in the prologue with Nick Offerman was gorgeous looking, as was the editing of that sequence.
  • I can’t discuss my favorite part of the film (tied with the opening lobby scene) without spoiling some things, but you’ll know it when you see it. It involves Darlene Sweet clapping in time to cover something up, and it is truly, truly hilarious and ingenious.
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