Bad Times at the El Royale

Contains Spoilers!

I watched Bad Times at the El Royale last weekend. It was a strange viewing experience: stagey, typey, talky and violent. I’m putting it in the “Liked It” Category.

The El Royale is a gimmicky hotel set right on the state line of Nevada and California, somewhere close to Reno. The parking lot has a painted line separating the states, which continues in tile inside the hotel lobby. The conceit is that you can choose to spend the night in California or in Nevada. The movie opens with a stagey scene in which a man painstakingly pulls up the floorboards of his room and hides something. A few minutes later he is murdered. Then we jump a decade to 1969, when it is clear the hotel has lost its cachet. Seven characters, including the youthful hotel manager, meet and interact, and nothing is quite what it looked like on the surface.

In short order we meet a bigoted vacuum cleaner salesman, an aging priest, a Motown singer (Cynthia Erivo, who sings a lot and could have sung more as far as I was concerned), an uncertain hotel manager, a hippie chick with an attitude, a kidnap victim and… that guy played by Chris Hemsworth. More on him in a sec. The characters are only slightly more fleshed out than types, but strangely enough, that works here.

There are many witty moments in this film, and many more that are weird, violent, gory and suspenseful. I kept wondering why the brutal, funny, surreal scenes were vaguely familiar. After the film ended I looked up Drew Goddard and discovered he directed The Cabin in the Woods, a film Bad Times resembles in some ways. (I know, some of you are saying, “Resembled… what, now?”)

How does this shiny period piece resemble a horror movie designed to give critique of the horror genre? Well, all the characters who go to the cabin in the woods are being observed on camera. And the El Royale has been set up for surveillance for a very long time. Each room has a large mirror on the wall, and it is a two-way mirror. Behind the rooms is a corridor with room and wiring for a film cameras and audio. In fact, one of the people there is using an assumed identity and has come to retrieve bugging equipment for the FBI. It often feels like we are watching a movie within a movie as the camera angles and the use of cards (“Room 5”) to mark scenes reminds us that we are seeing staged events.

Naturally, at least one of the people is there because they want the thing in the room where the floorboards were pulled up. And then there’s a spool of film, and references to the man and woman on it having sex – well, the man specifically, who is never named but obvious to us; someone dead; someone who was powerful.

Scenes are played and replayed; once from the audience’s point of view and once from the viewpoint of the hidden watcher(s) in the corridor.

The suspense builds and shifts in ways that were unexpected for me until Billy Lee, Chris Hemsworth’s character, appeared and changed the direction of the film yet again. Billy Lee is a charismatic, Manson-type cult leader. He and his group committed a savage multiple murder in southern California the day before, and now he’s come to recover one of his followers who is at the hotel. We know he is ruthless and likes to play power games. When he takes control, flanked by minions with shotguns, the whole story changes.

Hemsworth does a good job with Billy Lee as he is written, and he is evil, which puts the lesser evils of the other characters into some perspective. He didn’t convince me as a 60s-era cult leader though. Billy Lee is too twenty-teens savvy and too twenty-teens self-aware to be a convincing Manson clone. Manson believed he was a god. Billy Lee knows he’s not a god because he doesn’t believe in gods. He’s more like a twenty-first century psychopath who hopped in a time machine and went back to 1969 to mess with the locals. Still, he’s scary.

The film’s ending is violent, satisfying and powerful. There is one moment where I thought the whole passion-play existed to give one of the characters – the closest to a secondary character that the story had – redemption. And if it does exist for that reason, that’s not a bad thing.

And there’s music. A gorgeous Wurlitzer jukebox has pride of place in the retro-futuristic lobby, and Erivo sings. And it is wonderful. In a strange way, it elevates this film.

The writing was good. Some of the passages of dialogue went on too long and were a little too self-aware, but it didn’t spoil my engagement. Certainly I rolled my eyes and suspended my disbelief about how long it might take somebody to drive from Malibu to the El Royale, for instance (Billy conveniently arrives very quickly after his acolyte makes their not-so-surprising secret phone call to him). Overall though, I’d sum it up as flawed but interesting, weird but good.

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