Remember when Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction made their initial splash for Quentin Tarantino and studios rushed to get their own chopped up narrative films in theaters? Killing Zoe, 8 Heads in a Duffel Bag, 2 Days in the Valley, Smoking Aces and plenty more, it seemed like everyone was trying to make a movie that didn’t follow a linear track, had overly erudite killers with a skewed moral code and plenty of strange MacGuffins. As if 1992 was back again, I threw Bad Times at the El Royale into our blu ray player and sat back to watch.
One night in 1969, on the California/Nevada border, seven strangers all spend the night in a shady hotel — the El Royale itself. The hotel — which has seen better days — is split in half between the two states and is pretty much a “pervert hotel” now, although once it was home to the Rat Pack when they weren’t in Reno or Las Vegas (the hotel is based on the Cal Neva Resort and Casino that was once owned by Sinatra).
Catholic priest Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges), singer Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo, the best part of this movie), vacuum salesman Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm) and Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson) all arrive and wait for the hotel’s only worker, Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman).
Much like Tarantino, each section of the story overlaps and features title cards. It starts with the reveal that Sullivan is really an FBI agent who was sent to remove listening devices in one of the rooms. After finding double digits worth of them, he also discovers a tunnel filled with one-way mirrors and cameras that film everything in each room. Although he witnesses what he thinks is a kidnapping in Emily’s room, he is told by no less than J. Edgar Hoover himself to not interfere and to sabotage all of the vehicles so that no one can leave until he finds a critical piece of film. However, he can’t stop himself from trying to rescue Emily’s captive, who ends up being her sister, Rose (Cailee Spaeny). Emily ends up blowing him away with a shotgun.
Father Flynn and Sweet have dinner at the hotel’s automat diner. She notices him spiking her drink, so she knocks him out and tries to escape. As she watches Emily murder Sullivan, he recovers and discovers the hidden hallway and Miles confesses that the management of the hotel has asked him to film incriminating moments. However, he has kept one film that incriminates a recently killed public figure. As Miles watches the hostage situation in Emily’s room, he catches buckshot from her killing Sullivan right in the face.
Sweet tries to escape, but the cars have all been played with. Father Flynn gets into her car and reveals that he’s really a criminal who has spent the last ten years in jail only to learn that he has dementia. He knows that his brother (Nick Offerman) has hidden money in the hotel, but he has no idea which room it’s in. He offers to split the money if she’ll let him in her room. As she sings (this scene took over twenty takes of live singing), he finds the money.
Emily and Rose discover the tunnel and start to question Miles, who somehow survived. The older sister has removed the other from a cult run by Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth, who even has his own Hairdresser to Mr. Hemsworth employee in the credits), a Manson-esque figure who is responsible for the killings we keep seeing on the TV in the hotel’s bar. Even worse — he’s on his way to the El Royale.
The killer and his cult arrive, playing a brutal game of roulette with the lives of the survivors. After a Mexican standoff — yes, another Quentin trope — lives are lost, people are absolved and a few people survive.
This is 2 hours and 21 minutes long and the last act feels like forever, with near glacial pacing. At first, I defended it to my wife that everything was leading to this. However, it went on. And on. And then on some more.
This movie was written, produced and directed by Drew Goddard, who also directed The Cabin in the Woods as wrote Cloverfield and adapted World War Z for the screen. He was also part of Deadpool 2 and will be working on the next sequel, X-Force.
TV lovers will enjoy seeing William B. David (the Cigarette Smoking Man from The X-Files) show up as a judge and Jim O’Heir (Jerry from Parks and Recreation) as Reno host. These are simply cameos, but still nice to see these actors in a major movie.
Some may enjoy this film, but the more I thought of those unremarkable wannabe Tarantinos, the more this film felt like it fit right in. It’s certainly not a bad film, but it’s not one that you need to go out of your way to see. It just is. With time so limited these days, I feel like things have to be better than just fine.