Bad Times At The El Royale (2018)

Bad Times At The El Royale first published by Sight & Sound, December 2018

Review: Like his directorial debut Cabin in The Woods (2012), Drew Goddard’s second feature as writer/director, Bad Times at the El Royale, also concerns a structure with hidden rooms, secret surveillance and the heady clash of stories/storeys – but its chief preoccupations are fathers and the crossing of boundaries (between places, genders, genres, classes, even species). The El Royale Hotel is a novelty establishment whose tackily palatial interiors and gambling facilities once drew celebrities and politicians, but which has now, around 1969, seen better days. It is built, as a gimmick, right across the border between California and Nevada, and its few current guests are similarly divided between different states, their travelling clothes concealing histories that would remain hidden behind their rooms’ locked doors, were it not for a covert passageway that allows observers (like us) to spy into their private lives, and which eventually brings their separate narratives into chaotic collision. 

None of forgetful old priest Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges), cash-strapped Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo), slick salesman ‘Laramie’ (Jon Hamm), impolite hippy Emily (Dakota Johnson) and inattentive concierge Miles (Lewis Pullman) is quite who they seem, and they will all become embroiled in a dizzying plot involving buried loot, racial/social exclusion, a compromising film reel, a secret service investigation, a Manson-esque cult and Vietnam trauma. This multifaceted story unfolds in a series of formal, often chronologically overlapping chapters, along with interstitial flashbacks, in a style that might be called Tarantino-esque – even as Quentin Tarantino himself is currently working on Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, similarly focussed on the moment when America was crossing the line between the optimism of the Sixties and the soured dreams of the Seventies. 

Against the explicit backdrop of a White House occupied by Tricky Dick, Bad Times at the El Royale exposes the dark side of America’s patriarchal floor map. No-nonsense Emily is, along with her younger sister Rose (Cailee Spaeny), a survivor of an abusive father. Darlene immediately recognises that smooth-tongued, charismatic cult leader Billy Lee (a swaggering Chris Hemsworth) is engaged in the same pathetic power games as an endless parade of exploitative white men who have denied her talents (one, a privileged, manipulative music manager, is played by none other than Canadian director Xavier Dolan). Amongst these bad fathers and father figures, Daniel – not his real name – at first seems right at home: a ‘father’ by title (as a man of the cloth) who charms Darlene into joining him at the bar in order, in an apparent display of literally toxic masculinity, to spike her drink. Yet Daniel’s intentions are on a shifting boundary of good and evil. In an establishment whose male ‘management’ is not always to be trusted, Daniel is a father (after a fashion) who embodies a kind of outlaw decency, and who is, along with the conflicted Laramie and Miles, engaged in a struggle to do the right thing. The ensuing moral confusion, vibrant and endlessly surprising, is borderline genius.

Synopsis: The California/Nevada border, around 1969. Several strangers converge on the El Royale Hotel. ‘Father Daniel Flynn’ is a criminal with dementia, looking for stolen loot hidden there by his brother Felix ten years earlier (shortly before Felix was murdered by a double-crossing accomplice). Daniel’s priestly guise attracts the concierge Miles Miller, a junkie seeking absolution for all the kills he executed in Vietnam. In the hotel’s suite, traveling vacuum salesman ‘Laramie’ – in fact a government agent – sweeps the establishment for surveillance materials. Discovering a secret corridor looking on the rooms via two-way mirrors, he sees that another guest, Emily Summerspring, has abducted a young woman (in fact her sister Rosie, whom she is extracting from a Manson-like cult led by Billy Lee). Bursting in, Laramie is shot dead by Emily, who also injures Miles through the mirror. Put-upon singer Darlene Sweet agrees to help Daniel recover the loot from her room for a 50% cut. Leaving with the money and a compromising videotape (of an unnamed celebrity), Darlene and Daniel are intercepted by Billy (after Rosie has called him with her location) and his armed cult members. Billy has Emily, Darlene, Daniel and Miles tied up, and subjects them to deadly games of chance (killing Emily in the first of them). As Daniel attacks Billy, Miles reluctantly takes up a gun and shoots Billy and the cultists. Stabbed by Rosie, Miles is absolved by Daniel. The hotel burns down. Later, Daniel watches Darlene sing in Reno.

© Anton Bitel