Thursday, 14 February 2019

Bad Times At The El Royale (2018)

I have just finished watching Bad Times At The El Royale for a second time and I think that may already tell you how this review is going to go (considering I just bought it this week, and I rarely have time for rewatches lately). A first viewing left me in the rare mindset of having enjoyed what I watched but immediately wondering how it would hold up on a second viewing. Because I had issues with the film, with the pacing across the excessive runtime being the main one, and wondered if these would become more or less problematic upon a rewatch. The answer is less, with me knowing what was still to come I wasn't surprised by how far (or, indeed, not far) through the movie I was. Knowing that the plot wasn't setting up to pull the rug from under my feet, I was also able to relax more into the viewing experience and absorb all of the wonderful separate characters who are thrown together into an enjoyably pulpy crime thriller.

A number of people converge at the titular hotel. There's Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges), a salesman named Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm), a black singer named Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo), and a young woman named Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson). None of these people care much for the spiel given by the one hotel staff member, Miles (Lewis Pullman), who reminds them all of the unique placement of the building, one half in California and one half in Nevada, but that's mainly because they all have their own agendas to be getting on with. Secretive stuff, few people are as they initially appear to be. And, considering his placement on the poster, it's only a matter of time until Chris Hemsworth appears, playing a cult leader named Billy Lee.

Written and directed by Drew Goddard, Bad Times At The El Royale is a fantastic collage of cool moments that have been pieced together by someone obviously in love with the tropes and archetypes found in crime thrillers. You get the crook in disguise, the lawman (also in disguise), the femme fatale, two-way mirrors, a stash of stolen loot, and some inflammatory film footage. All the ingredients you need for a fine bit of intrigue and danger. Goddard is a major strength here, thanks to his writing and directorial style (he's not afraid to just sit back and show some moments that are cinematically cool), but it's also his name being attached to it that made me less appreciative of the movie the first time around, as I was expecting this to keep me on my toes and twist everything around a la The Cabin In The Woods. It's good that he doesn't just repeat the same trick, of course, but it's also so unexpected that you spend a lot of time waiting for a big twist that doesn't come (on the first viewing anyway). There are lots of little twists and turns, all nicely done and never feeling like cheats, but nothing that has Goddard turning everything inside out.

The solid script is helped by a cast who are all on great form. Bridges gives one of his more atypical performances in recent years, and is bloody wonderful in his role, Hamm is comfortable in another role that relies on his ability to be both arrogant and charming, Johnson is very good, and Pullman feels like a completely insignificant character caught up in the middle of things until he is given a chance to shine. But the standouts are Erivo, absolutely charming as the singer trying to work as hard as she can for her big break, and Hemsworth, who is only seen in flashback form until it's time for him to swagger into the hotel, bringing an energy and charisma that helps to revive the film en route to the (slightly overdue) third act. Cailee Spaeny is decent enough in her role, and there are nice cameos from Nick Offerman and Shea Whigham.

The positives far outweigh the negative here. The script, the cast, the design, the directorial and editing choices, etc. The only thing I will hold against it as a major minus is that bloated runtime, which should have been trimmed down by about 20 minutes, at least, to tighten it all up (the backstory to the Hemsworth character could have easily been truncated, as could some of the details we get as we see what eventually brought Bridges to the hotel).

Although it may seem unlikely as a film that you may end up returning to for comfort viewing, I can see this one becoming a constant favourite for those who warm to it as much as I have. I can't think of any main sequence that wasn't full of little moments I loved, and the finale was a lot more satisfying than I expected it to be. And that's before I start thinking of the potential allegory underpinning the storyline. Yeah, I'll end up rewatching this one before many other, brisker, films.


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