Four guests arrive at a motel with a unique gimmick. Each guest is not what they seem. There’s a thunderstorm and their cars won’t start. People start dying…
If this premise sounds like your brand of thrilling mystery, you might want to check out Bad Times at the El Royale.
Set in 1969, the El Royale straddles the California/Nevada border with a red line running right down the middle. There’s also more to the motel than meets the eye. There’s certainly a lot of tension and a great deal of suspense; however, I wanted to see this movie because Jeff Bridges (Tron, True Grit) is one of the four guests. I like him as an actor — The Big Lebowski is one of my favorite movies — and I was not disappointed. I thought his layered performance was particularly strong.
Bridges’ interactions with Cynthia Erivo (Widows, Chaos Walking), who plays a struggling soul singer, are especially nuanced. Bridges and Erivo play well off each other and their conversations are some of the most tense and deepest in the film. Cynthia Erivo also gives several stirring musical performances throughout the film.
Mystery guest number three is played by Jon Hamm (Mad Men, The Town). He ostensibly plays a vacuum salesman and it’s wonderful to see that Don Draper salesman charm when we first meet him. It’s moments like this that remind us how much we miss Mad Men.
Our last guest is played by Dakota Johnson from Black Mass and the 2018 remake of Suspiria. Although she’s dressed like a hippie, she’s got someone tied up in her trunk. Her kidnap victim draws another mystery guest to the motel, opening up a whole new can of worms for our complex characters. If you haven’t watched the trailer or want to go into the movie blind, I’m not going to spoil it for you.
While the premise of this movie sounds similar to Identity (but without that weird twist), most have compared El Royale to an Agatha Christie mystery like And Then There Were None. You can probably tell from my review of Murder on the Orient Express that I’m a big fan of her writing.
The “Queen of Crime” always had a wonderful way of isolating a group of strangers in a location before beginning to kill off the characters. If the next movie they make is Death on the Nile, you’ll see what I mean. However, unlike Christie, director/writer Drew Goddard (Cabin in the Woods) doesn’t intertwine the character’s backstories.
We do get glimpses of the character’s backstories in the form of flashbacks. Each of these mini-stories sheds some light into their motivation and reveals something about their character. In Jeff Bridges’ flashback, I didn’t initially recognize Nick Offerman (Parks and Recreation, Fargo) as his brother. But if you see the movie, you’ll understand why. Fortunately, my friend Pete leaned over and pointed him out. Anyway, I thought it was pretty cool — so be on the lookout. Because of this narrative structure, many have compared El Royale to the storytelling of movies like Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction.
Much like the films of Quentin Tarantino, El Royale has a terrific soundtrack. There’s the gospel and soul numbers sung by Erivo’s character, yes, but there’s also plenty of rock ‘n’ roll on the radio and jukebox. Having the movie set in 1969 gives the perfect excuse to play some great records on the jukebox in the lobby.
Besides the line running down the middle of the place and the different decors on each side, there’s not a whole lot going on with the El Royale’s gimmick. The desk clerk (actor Lewis Pullman) only informs us that rooms cost less on the Nevada side and that guests can only purchase liquor on the California side. We find out from Jon Hamm that the El Royale lost its gaming license, so there’s currently no gambling… thus the low attendance.
But there’s nothing deeper to the motel’s gimmick than what’s presented on the surface. I think more of an effort could have been made to make it interesting. For instance, I was reminded of a early scene in Sergeant York, where the characters go to a bar on the Tennessee/Kentucky border:
“Maybe our credit ain’t no good in Tennessee.”
Later, I recalled this scene to my cousin, while talking about the El Royale. He proceeded to tell me about a famous lounge called the Flora-Bama, located on the state line between Florida and Alabama. These kind of novelties do exist and it’s always interesting to learn what you can and can’t do, or what you can and can’t buy, across the state line. I just wish the movie had explored this concept more.
Nitpicking aside, it’s a good movie. The tension starts right off the bat and I felt that it only lapsed briefly between the second and third act. However, the film’s climax is pretty intense and it’s quite the payoff. The shots and camera work help add to the suspense, thanks to the director of The Cabin in the Woods. Be prepared for a slow burn, but with such great actors in these roles, the wait isn’t such a chore. Of course, I’d expect nothing less from Jeff Bridges. The Dude is a master at navigating us through convoluted mysteries that have “a lotta ins, lotta outs, lotta what-have-you’s.”
If you want to grip your armrest in suspense and watch some great acting, might I recommend Bad Times at the El Royale.