Imagine a ménage à trois of Agatha Christie, Alfred Hitchcock and Quentin Tarantino at the Overlook Hotel with a banging 60’s soundtrack. Got that unpleasant vision in your mind? Good! You’re halfway there to getting the feel of “Bad Times at the El Royale”. And they really are bad times!
It’s 1969 and an oddball set of characters arrive at the faded glory of the El Royale hotel at Lake Tahoe: “a bi-state establishment” straddling the Nevada/California border: so describes the manager-cum-bellhop-cum-bartender-cum-cleaner Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman, soon to appear as Maverick in the “Top Gun” sequel). The motley crew include Laramie Seymour Sullivan, a vacuum cleaner salesman (Jon Hamm); Father Daniel Flynn, an oddly-acting priest (Jeff Bridges); Darlene Sweet, a struggling Motown-style singer (Cynthia Erivo); and Emily Summerspring, a rude and abrupt hippy-chick with attitude (Dakota Johnson). But noone is quite who they seem and their twisted and convoluted lives combine in a memorable night of surprise and violence at the El Royale.
This is a truly great ensemble cast. But out in front of the pack are the simply brilliant Jeff Bridges and Cynthia Erivo, an actress new to me who has a great voice and made a big impression. Scenes between the pair are just electric. Jon Hamm is as quirkily great as ever and Dakota “not Fanning” Johnson is far better in this film than any recent stuff I’ve seen her in. Another standout was another newcomer to me – young Cailee Spaeny as Rose, looking for all the world in some scenes like a young Carey Mulligan. While we’re on lookalikes, Lewis Pullman (best known to me for “Battle of the Sexes”) looks very like Tom Holland in some scenes. One star name not yet mentioned is Chris Hemsworth. He actually does a great job in his demanding Messianic role of Billy Lee, but I just had trouble equating the “Thor” star as being “all kinds of bad”: this felt like a slight misstep in the casting to me.
I found this film to be just enormously entertaining. It is very Tarantino-esque in its claustrophobic nature (compare it with “The Hateful 8” in that respect) and with its quirky episodic flash cards (compare with “Pulp Fiction” or “Kill Bill”) but for me was much more appetising since – although very violent – it never stooped to the queasy “blow your face off” excesses of Tarantino, that I personally find distasteful. Where it apes Hitchcock is in its intricate plotting: the story regularly throws you off-balance with some genuinely surprising twists and turns that you never see coming. And the interesting time-splicing and flashbacks also keep you on your mental toes. To say any more or to give any examples would be a spoilerish crime, so I will refrain. This is a dish best served cold (so avoid the trailer if you can).
The film has a marvellous sense of place and time and key to establishing that is some superb set design; some brilliant costumes; and – most of all – an exquisitely chosen song catalogue. The great Michael Giacchino is behind the music, and he does a truly fabulous job, not just with the song selection but also with the background music. This never seems to intrude noticeably until the end titles, when you realise it’s been insistently working on you all the time: the best sort of soundtrack.
There are some films that make you marvel how someone sat at a keyboard and got a screenplay down on paper so satisfyingly. While it could be accused of aping Tarantino somewhat, for me this is still one such film. The writer/director Drew Goddard has come from the J.J. Abrams stable of “Alias” and “Lost”, and has previously written the great screenplays for films including “Cloverfield”, “The Martian” and “World War Z”. His only previous directorial feature was “The Cabin in the Woods” (which I’ve not seen), but after this he is definitely on my movie radar: his next film will be “X-force”: a “Deadpool 2” follow-on with Ryan Reynolds, Josh Brolin and Zazie Beetz, and I can’t wait to see that.
If there’s a criticism it’s that at 141 minutes its a tad long. It never to me felt like a film that long, such was the entertainment value, but while I just loved the development of character just a few of the scenes felt a little leisurely and superfluous. Trim 10 minutes off the running time – no more – and it might have felt tighter still.
This film is without a doubt going to storm into my Top 10 for the year. It’s an entertaining delight, full of twists, turns, deliciously wordy dialogue and a satisfyingly open ending. I can’t believe this film hasn’t been top billing in multiplexes up and down the country for WEEKS on end. If you get the chance, my advice would be to seek this out before it disappears.
Review by bob-the-movie-man