When you book a week off work, there are things you probably should do – like serious life-admin and catch up on sleep. There are also things you probably shouldn’t do – like watching Will & Grace on Amazon Prime until 1 in the morning.
As you can guess, my plans consisted of the latter of those two options. I did, however, do something worthwhile. I saw Bad Times at the El Royale. When I definitely should have been shopping for my girlfriend’s fast approaching birthday. (But Bad Times was more worthwhile.)
Bad Times at the El Royale (or, for the sake of my fingertips, BTATER, as it shall now be known) is a exciting mystery thriller which is both style and substance, and boasts a pretty impressive cast – including Jeff Bridges and Chris Hemsworth – who all equally have their time to shine.
Several strangers all arrive at a hotel in Lake Tahoe, the El Royale. Of course, this isn’t going to be like your classic stay at a nearby Premier Inn, where you awkwardly shuffle to the nearby vending machine in the wishful hope of bumping into Lenny Henry. Each of these strangers brings with them a brutal and unforgiving secret, which causes all hell to break out. I guess that’s why the El Royale only got a two-star rating on TripAdvisor. “Excellent services. Comfy bed. Too many murderous rampages“.
Directed by Drew Goddard, the man behind The Cabin In The Woods – a film I didn’t watch, because it looked mildly scary – BTATER is as much about its plot as it is about its visuals. Bad Times is, frankly, god damn beautiful. Primarily set in the hotel, there’s not much room for huge, vast sweeping shots of gorgeous scenery. Instead, BTATER uses clever colour palettes to break up characters and scenes. The outside, which is often wet and rainy has a red glow from the neon sign, giving off a deadly vibe. Each hotel room has a different scheme – Jon Hamm’s is pink, Cynthia Erivo’s is blue. Even the hotel itself – which is divided down the middle, by the border of Nevada and California – is two shades to symbolise each of the states. It also features a topless Chris Hemsworth which is pretty too. Just sayin’.
The El Royale doesn’t just look good; it sounds great too. Like Susan Boyle. What? I fancied her. Don’t judge me. The neo-noir thriller is set in the late 60s/early 70s and features so many great songs from the era – from Frankie Valli to Edwin Starr – often of which cause a topless Chris Hemsworth to bust some serious shapes. IT’S NOT GAY IF IT’S CHRIS HEMSWORTH, OKAY?! One of the characters, Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo) is a struggling singer and performs throughout, and my only criticism on this front is that I could’ve done with more of her singing.
Ye be warned – spoilers lie ahead now. Darlene Sweet manages to survive the chaos at the El Royale, and pursues her dream of singing at casinos in Reno. In fact, this is how the movie closes. Which seemed like quite a let down. BTATER was so brave in killing off big stars and, in turn, big characters so early, only to have such a soppy, predictable, paint-by-numbers ending. During the middle act, Jeff Bridges’ priest stated how he’d like to see Darlene perform one day, only to end the movie with him heading to said casino and giving each other a sly nod as she began to sing. I’d expect this sort of finale for a Disney Channel Original Movie, but not for something as entertaining and shocking as El Royale. I’d have preferred it if Darlene had never seen Donald O’Kelly (Jeff Bridges) at the casino; if he’d have sat at the very back of the casino and it was up to the viewer to decide if he approached her post-performance, or if that was his final farewell, after putting her through such a traumatic time at the hotel. Still not as traumatic as the time I stayed at a Holiday Inn. Nothing bad happened there; it was just a Holiday Inn.
It wasn’t until the final act that I was convinced Drew Goddard had given up and was keen on renaming the movie to Bad Times At The Deus Ex Machina. After Chris Hemsworth’s cult followers take over the hotel and hold the guests hostage, the weedy, heroin-addicted, whimpering concierge, Miles Miller, suddenly admits he was one of the world’s greatest snipers and had already killed 123 people, and singlehandedly picks off the murderers that have held them captive. Well, that came out of nowhere, didn’t it? I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Miles wasn’t also a fucking fantastic chef, technician, comedian, swimmer, librarian and zookeeper too, at that rate. Maybe I’m being too harsh – Miles often sought to the priest’s forgiveness for sins he’d committed (possibly the 123 murders; possibly the heroin addiction; possibly the secret recordings of guests in his hotel), but his Terminator style shoot-down seemed out-of-character.
Again, Miles’ death was – much like the final casino scene – too schmaltzy. After realising that Jeff Bridges wasn’t a priest, but a conman, Miles is devastated that his prayers weren’t heard, and that his sins weren’t cleansed. As he dies, Jeff Bridges, still in his priest attire, gives Miles a chance to confess and Jeff forgives him in the name of the Lord. What. A. Load. Of. Sap. It seemed to lovey-dovey to be in a picture as dark as BTATER. I understand that it was an attempt to make Jeff Bridges’ character more likeable, but who was it really benefiting?
Bad Times at the El Royale was reminiscent of a Tarantino movie. Not only did it feature huge names and contain a lot of shocking, gory deaths, but structurally, too. (Y’know what makes it better than a Tarantino movie, though? It didn’t feature any of Quentin’s god awful acting.) The movie was divided into several episodic chapters, each with a new title at the beginning – whether it was a room number or a guests’ name. This allowed for each character to shine equally and state why they were at the hotel and what secrets they were bringing with them. It also allowed for different views of events that happened. At one point, Dakota Johnson shoots Jon Hamm into a mirror. That’s all we see from her perspective, but as Jeff Bridges’ chapter begins, we see he’s behind a one-way mirror with Miles, and as Dakota shoots Jon, the buckshot takes out Miles from behind the mirror. I loved this feature throughout the movie, as it constantly added new layers, and suspense if you knew what was happening where. I can only assume Drew recently saw the episode of The Simpsons ‘Trilogy Of Error’ and that’s where he got the idea from. It’s logic, really.
As a mystery-thriller, it seems fair that BTATER would have some queries that may never be solved. Whether it’s because the characters couldn’t deduce the answer, or because it was up to the viewing audience to decide what happened. But El Royale had too many unanswered questions. One featured heavily on Jeff Bridges’ character trying to retrieve a filmstrip from the hotel, after it was confirmed that the concierge recorded all of the goings on in the hotel rooms. It was never stated what was on that film, even after Chris Hemsworth made such a big deal of Jeff retrieving it. Theories state that it may have been a recording of JFK having an affair, some of which believe to be with Marilyn Monroe (newspaper clippings hang on the wall saying the actress stayed at the El Royale.) I just don’t see why Jeff’s character would go through such lengths to retrieve that. One unanswered mystery, however, I could deal with. There were, however, too many to forgive. The movie opens with Jeff Bridges’ brother, played by Nick Offerman, stashing away some money that he and Jeff had previously stolen, only to be shot and killed moments later. It’s never revealed who killed him or why they did. The money wasn’t taken, as Jeff retrieved that later in the film, set ten years after Nick’s death. Similarly, we are shown flashbacks of Dakota Johnson’s sister, Rose (Cailee Spaeny) stood over someone she has murdered. Again, throughout the movie, it’s never even hinted as to who she killed, so why keep on showing it. Once in a flashback would be sufficient; to show that she did bad things because of the cult, but with it constantly repeating itself, I assumed it would eventually end in a big reveal. OH. SHIT. SHE KILLED ADOLF HITLER?! Or, y’know, her father… If you wanna be boring.
Despite there being a few minor flaws in Bad Times at the El Royale, you can’t knock it too much. It looks and sounds gorgeous. The cast are just flawless. And it really is a suspenseful ride. Just know that if you are going to the cinema to see it, maybe hold in your wee for the last fifteen minutes. You won’t be missing much…