BR: Bad Times at the El Royale (2018)

January 11, 2019 | By

Film: Good

Transfer:  Excellent

Extras: Good

Label:  Fox

Region: A

Released:  January 1, 2019

Genre:  Suspense / Neo-Noir

Synopsis: The overnight stay of several disparate characters at a has-been travel lodge ignites killings, unearths several mysteries, and brings a sleazy force with a deadly judgmental hand.

Special Features:  Making-of Featurette (28:35) / Gallery / Teaser & Theatrical Trailers.




As a producer (TV’s Alias, Lost) and writer (The Martian, World War Z), Drew Goddard’s had strong success, but as a writer-director, his attempts to have fun and scramble genres have been less satisfying, if not more than a bit infuriating.

Cabin in the Woods (2011) has its admirers: it’s a genre mash-up that has a batch of friends staying at a cabin (in the woods) with a basement filled with secret artifacts that may (don’t) hold clues to the strange events and brutal slasher film-styled deaths of the guests… but then morphs into an intriguing Twilight Zone episode… and then offers a Lost-styled revelation, and concludes with a nonsensical sacrificial tale featuring an overloaded free-for-all bloodfest that perhaps, due to a post-production error, missed tossing in a kitchen sink.

Bad Times at the Royale is a more concentrated effort by Goddard to focus on a handful of disparate characters forced together at an isolated location where money was buried 10 years prior to their visit. It’s an initially compelling premise: the lives of unhappy strangers with very distinct backstories change (or end) on an accidental or instinctive move.

Goddard’s mined the history of the old Can Neva gambling lodge where part owner Frank Sinatra and his roguish Rat Pack gambled, sang, giggled, and enjoyed bedroom antics. The mid-century complex had a uniquely twisted design: by straddling the California-Nevada border, guests could walk into the latter state, and gamble to their hearts’ content.

The imagined El Royal is a beautiful creation:  it’s a winged resort, and like the Cal Neva, a red line demarcates pleasures in their exclusive legal surroundings, and it has secret tunnels and passages where clerk / server / handyman / heroine addict Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman) is occasionally alerted by the resort’s Pennsylvania owners to film sexual activities of certain clients using a tunnel and two-way mirror set-up.

Not unlike the Cal Neva, the El Royale – which sports a wall of famous guests, including Sinatra – has fallen onto hard times after some legal changes reduces its most attractive features (gambling being nuked, due to a suspended license), making it a swanky yet cheap motel for passersby that include recently released ex-con Father Flynn (Jeff Bridges), an aspiring singer (superb Cynthia Erivo), vacuum salesman / FBI agent Sullivan (Jon Hamm), and pushy Emily (Dakota Johnson), who amazingly pulls a fettered young woman and big shotgun from the trunk of her Cougar without anyone seeing anything.

Or so it seems.

Goddard’s drama is a mélange of the far better Identity (2003), in which disparate characters collide and die horribly in a rain-soaked motel, with a twist tied to a deeply disturbed guest. In spite of less characters and the same sudden shock deaths of main characters, Goddard slows down the mystery to indulgent degrees that make one feel he was aiming for a lighter version of The Hateful Eight (2015), albeit with no Ultra Panavision 70 lenses and less splattering if viscera and amputated limbs.

Using a Rashomon series of flashbacks done better and tighter in Identity, a sudden killing is seen from the surreptitious vantages of other characters. Each separate backstory is interjected at certain points, but they’re equally slow in spite of filling in a modicum of info that doesn’t really deepen anyone, especially those doomed to die. At nearly 2.5 hours, El Royale is way too long; it becomes very clear after the first 40 minutes that the small moments in which characters observe, discover, reflect, and interact aren’t as interesting as Goddard felt they would be.

Goddard’s decision to grind the finale’s pacing to a faint heartbeat also results in a preposterous stroke of luck for the film’s most subdued character: as Miller finally receives the absolution he craves from Father Flynn, the incendiary environment burns outrageously slow, ensuring both shootout, soliloquy, flashback, and absolution happen in real time… but no one’s in any danger of being crushed by charred beams and tumbling roofing.

As a writer, Goddard likes playing with structure – Cloverfield (2008) shifts from a millennial house party to Godzilla film with an extended disaster movie segment; Lost toyed with viewers by flipping from the present day to flashbacks and then flash-forwards; and Cabin in the Woods crashed through genres and played with audience expectations, denying clichés and killing off its heroes with notable suddenness – but perhaps because he aspired for something smaller and deeper, Royale just plods along. It’s a movie in need of a recut which wouldn’t have harmed his meticulous design, and may have augured the jarring arrival of Emily’s nemesis Billy Lee. Chris Hemsworth portrays the murderous cult leader as a Lizard King hybrid, and with slight echoes of Tarantino’s Mr. Blonde: instead of a knife, Billy torments his captive victims by gyrating to Motown tunes and leaving their fates to the roll of the bouncing roulette ball and double-barreled shotgun.

Perhaps the one successful element within Goddard’s film is the use of sound: the best segment has Father Flynn turning on a speaker system, and as Darlene sings to the mirror, we follow Flynn’s examination of the creepy hallway and its gallery of peep-windows in an elegantly long take. When Darlene’s voice is switched off, it’s because Flynn realizes he’s invaded her privacy too deep, and for too long – an old fashioned morality that later has him quip to Billy Lee ‘You don’t deserve to hear her sing.’

The performances are strong (including stealth appearances by Xavier Doland and Shea Wigham), the set design and décor superb, Seamus McGarvey’s cinematography lush, Michael Giacchino’s stealthy score is fine, and the sound design punchy.

Fox’s Blu-ray sports a fine transfer and sound mix, and the main extra is a straightforward making-of featurette that showcases the incredible set as well as the cast in Goddard’s dream project. Conceived as a noir thriller, the entire hotel was built inside a studio with exceptional detail to evoking a frozen mid-century hotel that’s showing its age in the late 1960s as ‘Eisenhower’ adults clash with the film’s hippy characters (namely Darlene, sister Rose, and cult leader / sleazebag Billy Lee).

It’s clear everyone had fun making El Royale – Goddard had MacGarvey shoot on film, and not unlike Hateful Eight, used vintage lenses to capture a classic look – but it is interesting to compare what was conceived and filmed by the enthusiastic production with what was realized in the final edit. Every cast member gets a spotlight, especially Jeff Bridges, who brought along a classic Widelux camera to snap ‘widescreen’ B&W snapshots behind-the-scenes. Oddest aspect of the featurette: Goddard never mentions the Cal Neva resort, which influenced the central location, and elemental aspects of the story.



© 2019 Mark R. Hasan





External References:
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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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