You park your car at a kitschy little motel near Lake Tahoe called “El Royale.” It’s divided by the state line between California and Nevada and the only employee gives you the option of staying the night in California or Nevada. You receive your key and sign your name in the ledger, just like the other guests in Fox’s Bad Times at the El Royale.
Set in 1962, the film transports audiences back to the marvelous mid-century and all of the social and political chaos that goes along with it. Checking in are a singer, a priest, a vacuum salesman, and a hippie. But like the 1980’s classic film Clue, no one is who they say they are.
Drawing another similarity to Clue, once everyone is checked in, the storytelling device is similar to the series of endings from the home video version. They don’t negate each other, but the narrative switches from guest room to guest room (and even some backstage areas), focusing on the occupants of that space. The only times you actually leave the motor hotel are through flashbacks to bits of each occupants life before this unfortunate night.
The film begins with a dark tone, but it only gets darker from there. This is my first time seeing a film directed by Drew Goddard, although I have seen his episodes of NBC’s The Good Place. The tone and level of gore is reminiscent of much of Quinten Tarantino’s work, but it doesn’t revel in the gore… much. As each layer is pulled back, the characters get more and more disturbing. It’s not without its comedic moments, the title itself being a bit of a joke, but it also doesn’t make light of the seriousness of the topics up for grabs, including murder, drugs, blackmail, robbery, racism, and misogyny.
The casting and acting are amazing here. Jon Hamm shifts gears so masterfully, Dakota Johnson delivers the funniest line with a straight face, and Lewis Pullman draws some real emotion out of a chaotic death romp. Jeff Bridges is everything you expect him to be as Father Flynn (a nod to Tron?). Chris Hemsworth pulls off a Southern accent in one of his darkest and most scantly clad roles. But the standout performance here goes to Cynthia Erivo, whose sincerity and powerful voice were the only things keeping me in my seat as the story dove down a rabbit hole that doesn’t lead to Wonderland.
The film has an amazing soundtrack of 50’s and 60’s classics, representing a musical shift in public taste that can be felt through the mix of characters. Michal Giacchino provides a haunting score for this festival of deception and murder. The music isn’t quite on the same level as “Guardians of the Galaxy,” but this is sure to be a winning soundtrack release and I’m looking forward to it.
If you enjoy films like Pulp Fiction, then Bad Times at the El Royale is your kind of film. For the rest of us, there’s Clue and it never gets old. Now if you need me, I’ll be at the lobby automat enjoying a slice of apple pie while I ride out the storm.
I give Bad Times at the El Royale 2.5 out of 5 shirts that repel Chris Hemsworth’s body.