“Shit happens, get the Whiskey.”
Bad Times at the El Royale is a trip. A trip through time, music, style and history. It’s a multi-layered affair, rich with allusions of all sorts and it needs time to breathe, so allow for it to enfold for you on its own time. Let’s start with the basics. It’s about a group of individuals who are thrown together by pure chance (or is it in fact fate?) in the once popular El Royale Hotel, on the outskirts of Lake Tahoe. We have Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm), a vacuum seller/undercover FBI agent, Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo), a talented yet unsuccessful singer, Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges) who might or might not be a priest, Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson), a hippie girl on the outside and Miles (Lewis Pullman), the unusually nervous front desk clerk.
The story takes place during the Vietnam War and reflects the general sentiment of political paranoia, instability and distrust: two-way mirrors, hidden surveillance devices, false identities and compromising visual material are all over the place. No one is what they want everybody to believe to be and something is seriously off about the hotel. There is a certain sense of impending doom present at all times. You don’t really know why but your neck hair never relaxes. Sounds familiar? Empty hotel in a remote space and impending evil? There is no curtain of blood or a pair of evil twins, but I think The Shining strongly influenced this film regarding its décor and the way it builds suspense by keeping us on our toes until the bomb goes off. However, it doesn’t quite manage to maintain that high level of suspense throughout. It takes quite long for the story to get going and also the second half feels stretched-out unnecessarily.
Pulp Fiction certainly was another big influence in the making of this motion picture, especially its use of a compiled score. It appears to be quite fashionable at the moment with films like Baby Driver and also Bad Times at the El Royale putting dramatic emphasis on their choice of music. In this case, it is a wild rollercoaster of jukebox tracks from the 60s era (which are actually played from a jukebox during the film). On many occasions, the soundtrack creates a grotesque contrast between sound and image, both amusing and terrifying. But it gets pushed over the top. Just as the movie itself, this reoccurring motif loses its magic over time. Nevertheless, El Royale’s version of Can’t Hurry Love will stick with viewers for some time, I’m sure.
All the actors are doing a great job, they are in fact covering some of the flaws outlined before. Chris Hemsworth as Manson-like cult leader with moustache and six-pack on display, framing himself as a Jesus-figure, stands out the most because we haven’t really seen him like this before and leaves us in a sense of appalling amazement.
One thing that can clearly be said about this film is, and there are many things that remain rather unclear, that it does the opposite of what the title suggests. It’s a bit like The Shining meets The Hateful Eight; a post-modern banquet for the senses, slightly overcooked, but nevertheless entertaining, haunting, gripping and worth the watch.