2018 | rated R | starring Cynthia Erivo, Jeff Bridges, Jon Hamm, Dakota Johnson, Lewis Pullman | written & directed by Drew Goddard | 2 hrs 21 mins |
Writer Drew Goddard hasn’t been in the director’s chair since putting together the terrific The Cabin in the Woods, a movie that despite the long shadow of Joss Whedon works less because of Whedon’s somewhat on-the-nose script than Goddard’s final thrilling product. For directing his own work he’s chosen nothing short of a full-blown homage to all things Quentin Tarantino with Bad Times at the El Royale, a mostly single-location mystery of strangers that has all of the QT hallmarks but none of the depth and passion.
But boy goddamn does this movie open masterfully. The first scene is masterful and the first act is so good, so well crafted, that I was already mentally questioning why people don’t talk about this movie more and why it hasn’t already become a cult classic. Then the rest of the movie happens. It feels all the worse to watch each piece that Goddard so meticulously set up spin out of his grasp with each passing revelation.
That lovely setup involves 4 strangers with secrets coming together on one rainy night at a hotel, but the real star is the El Royale Hotel itself, a well designed world of tacky decadence that sits in the middle of the border between Nevada and California with the hotel itself split into state themes and a charge of $1 more to stay in the California rooms because they’re in California. We meet an aspiring soul singer (Cynthia Erivo), a priest (Jeff Bridges), a fast-talking vacuum cleaner salesman (Jon Hamm), and a belligerent hippie (Dakota Johnson). The place is empty except for the lone absentee desk clerk (Lewis Pullman) and we know there is money buried under the floor somewhere.
It’s a set up charged with Mousetrap Agatha Cristie vibes but nobody winds up dead on the floor with everyone else looking for the suspect. Instead, Goddard plunders the works of Tarantino. The 60s setting, the focus on the mundane parts of the check-in, the flashbacks and multiple POVs, the heist gone wrong, the verbose salesman who uses the word “accoutrements” in a wacky southern accent (Hamm is the highlight of the film) and the showcase for a tough-as-nails woman to be tough-as-nails – Tarantino’s fingerprints are all over this movie.
After the set-up, Goddard gets down to the business of unravelling everyone’s secrets thanks to the first big revelation – that the El Royale has an elaborate surveillance system. Each guest in each room has their own story, which is great, but instead of using that as their motive for whatever may bring them together in the El Royale, Goddard charges ahead with each story on multiple tracks with lengthy flashbacks that pushes and pulls everything against each other. The movie becomes this big messy, clunky hybrid of an anthology of each character’s story and a confined thriller without an over-arching story to tie it all together. By the time we get to the finale Goddard has lost control of all of it.
Worse, Goddard treats them all like caricatures, vehicles to dump twists and turns out of, not flesh and blood, proactive characters the likes of which Tarantino would make the core of his films. My reaction to this film was exactly what you don’t want: in the third act, when everyone’s life was on the line, I didn’t care if any of these people lived or died.
My other reaction was to think a lot about Charade. Charade is widely considered the best Alfred Hitchcock movie Hitchcock didn’t direct – and for the first half of El Royale it appeared to be the best Tarantino movie Tarantino didn’t direct. This is the best Goddard could hope for. But Charade also doesn’t feel like it is made out of bits and pieces of Hitchcock films and it ultimately gets out from under those tropes with it’s own memorable characters and original moments. The instances where El Royale gets out of homage mode come up empty. It’ nails it’s first hour beautifully. And then goes on for another 90 minutes and takes more than a few bizarre turns into cults, kidnappings, Vietnam and most importantly stopping the movie cold to serve as an audition for the singing voice of Erivo.
It’s a great looking movie, always. My appreciation for it’s first act goes along way to heightening it’s score. Goddard is a talent who gets tangled up in an ambitious genre story that comes out being too clever by half and runs out of gas way before it’s over.