Certified critic on Rotten Tomatoes. Member of the Houston Film Critics Society. Also writes for Bounding Into Comics and God Hates Geeks.
No Place for a Priest
Screenwriter and director Drew Goddard’s neo-noir mystery thriller opens with no dialogue in a dimly lit hotel room as Nick Offerman (in a role that is best left nameless here) pushes all of the furniture in the room to one side, rolls up the carpet, pries the wooden planks from the floor, and buries a bag before replacing everything as it was. He goes outside and stands in the rain for a bit before smoking a cigarette in his room when there’s a knock at his door. He welcomes the visitor, turns around, and is shot in the back as the film jumps to ten years later.
Set in 1969, the El Royale hotel rests on the border between California and Nevada and provides a unique atmosphere that capitalizes on what each state has to offer. Seven strangers rendezvous at the once prestigious now deserted establishment and soon come to realize that they all have their own secrets to hide. There’s the forgetful priest Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges), a backup vocalist eager to make a name for herself named Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo), Seymour 'Laramie' Sullivan (Jon Hamm) is a mouthy vacuum cleaner salesman, a Southern fugitive with no people skills named Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson), Emily’s gullible younger sister Rose (Cailee Spaeny), the hotel concierge and heroin addict Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman), and the alluring cult leader Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth).
Bad Times at the El Royale is broken into chapters initially breaking down each character by highlighting which room they reside in and eventually branching out into other cities that cater to what certain characters are attempting to keep hidden. What’s intriguing is that everything intertwines and the film’s hefty 140-minute runtime feels short due to how invested you become in diving into these perplexing individuals. Every person in this seems to be wearing a metaphorical mask or a mostly-hypothetical costume in order to cover up who they really are or what their true intentions are.
The bizarre aspect is that the film’s pros are also its cons. There’s a fine line between homage and carbon copy imitation and Bad Times at the El Royale unapologetically leaps from side to side. There’s that episode of The Simpsons from season eight where Homer eats a Guatemalan insanity pepper and he has a kaleidoscopic vision where he talks to a coyote spirit guide voiced by Johnny Cash. As Homer is walking through the desert, he notices the sun rising and setting depending on if he walks forwards or backwards. He proceeds to play, “Sunrise, sunset,” until the sun shatters. El Royale plays with homage and imitation in similar fashion like someone jumping from California to Nevada over and over again until it becomes annoying. There are some admirable influences in its formula, but it feels like El Royale doesn’t commit to them as much as you’d like it to.
Some incredible performances lie within Bad Times at the El Royale. Jon Hamm is exceptional despite his role being so small. Hamm is the perfect blend of amusement and annoyance rolled into a character who can’t keep his mouth shut. Jeff Bridges has also gotten the most out of incorporating the crotchetiness that comes with being nearly 70-years-old into his most recent roles. As Father Flynn, Bridges has a way of speaking that sounds like he’s attempting to talk around loose dentures or has a mouthful of marbles that can’t be removed. There’s a genuine pain in his voice and a sorrow deep within his eyes when he speaks about not being able to remember things that is haunting and memorable. Lewis Pullman also captivates as a character faced with this eternal conflict that he can’t overcome. Miles is a complex character who truly shines in the final moments of the film and Pullman somehow brings this strange yet innocent kind of grace to a drug addict who seemingly has ulterior motives.
It’s exhilarating to see Chris Hemsworth reunite with Drew Goddard after The Cabin in the Woods, especially since Hemsworth is portraying the type of character you’re least expecting from the Australian actor. In a similar way Hemsworth took comedy by storm seemingly out of nowhere, he’s able to slide into the wet blue jeans and never-buttoned up long sleeve shirt of an unsettling brainwashing cult leader seemingly effortlessly. Billy Lee knows how to use his looks to obtain his deepest desires and he’s established this following that will do anything for him for the smallest bit of affection. Hemsworth is unpredictable in the role utilizing roulette, mesmerizing dance moves, and a ridiculous set of abs to throw his potential victims off guard.
It’s as if Drew Goddard looked at James Mangold’s 2003 psychological thriller Identity and decided to reboot it as his own personal property with watered down Quentin Tarantino influences sprinkled throughout. There are also hints of Psycho in its formula as well as Bad Times at the El Royale feeling like the better version of Hotel Artemis. El Royale has so many films it reminds you of and fails to have its own unique traits bleed through its familiar influences. Goddard has essentially created this conjoined twin of a film that is often ugly, misshapen, and difficult to stomach but when it works its amazing cast is able to soar and its 140-minute runtime compels.
© 2018 Chris Sawin