Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Dakota Johnson, Cailee Spaeny, Jon Hamm, Jeff Bridges. Directed by Drew Goddard.
Original films are fairly hard to come by, and decent certainly ones aren’t all that common in mainstream cinema. To pretend movies are about art is foolish, they are about making money. You need only look at the unfinished top ten of No Majesty’s year (that will be published in December). Thus far, it features two comic book blockbusters, three films based on memoirs, a film based vaguely on a real event, a remake, a film based on a book… only two films can be considered absolutely original out of a possible ten slots. Which is perhaps why people are so jazzed for Drew Goddard’s latest.
Goddard is a man who has his fingers in a lot of pies. He created the Netflix series Daredevil, he co-wrote and directed horror-satire The Cabin in the Woods, was Oscar-nominated for writing The Martian, wrote Cloverfield, worked on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and is already prepping X-Men series spin-off X-Force. So to also come at us with this ensemble crime thriller is very impressive, and then one looks at the plot and the cast and it becomes even more impressive.
Bad Times at the El Royale is a film that requires a level of ignorance about the whole thing, so the set-up will be the basic bones of what you need to know. Sitting on the cross-state line of Nevada and California, the El Royale plays host to several people one night in the 70s. Those included are conflicted bell-boy Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman), ageing priest Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges), down-on-her-luck singer Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo), obnoxious kidnapper Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson) and travelling salesman Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm). As the night goes on, revelations abound, and a cult leader (Chris Hemsworth) comes steamrolling towards the hotel.
From the get go, there is more than a whiff of the Quentin Tarantino about the film; the ensemble cast, sprawling narrative, retrovibe, jukebox soundtrack and dialogue all feel like they’re of him, and the epic two hours plus runtime makes it feel like QT at his heights. In fact, at times it feels a little like a companion piece to The Hateful Eight. What sets it apart is the style and twists that the film takes.
Goddard is a talented writer, there’s no doubt about that. No one who has Cloverfield, The Cabin in the Woods and The Martian under their belt does those by accident, and here he shows he is worth trusting with studio pictures. From the get-go he deals in easy to grasp ideas – trust absolutely no one, and prepare for a good time in a retro feel.
Goddard along with his pro cinematographer Seamus McGarvey show their love of a long tracking shot, and lingering on the actor’s faces. The pacing might at times feel off, but there are images in the film that are simply gorgeous. The image of Jon Hamm lurking in a long dank corridor is a brilliant one, the image of a shirtless Hemsworth in a field of flowers, Erivo stood rain-soaked under the neon sign of the hotel or a masked bank robber stood, gun in hand as money rains down overhead. That said, the use of title cards at times feel a little forced, and when they come in the middle of a climactic shootout it feels a little ridiculous to use the motif instead of just cutting to some flashbacks.
It’s clear that an original idea has captured the imaginations of everyone involved; a great cast like this only comes along so often and to have a story we have no conceptions of, and characters we don’t know, means there’s an original joy to the film. There’s a level of artistic work that is going on that shows people want this to be a good film.
To see a film with real actors interacting with other actors, performing a script that was clearly written by its director, shot on a set, in real costumes mean that the film has an ‘old fashioned’ feel. That’s not to say big event films like The Avengers are bad, they are what they are, but there is something about this that really grips you.
Yes, the jukebox soundtrack is great, with tons of soul music and commenting on the changing tones of music, and the brooding score by Michael Giacchino is a moody work, but there is something about Erivo’s a capella singing that brings soul to the film, and Erivo is on fire for the whole time she’s on. The whole cast is great, and if this is to go on to awards glory (expect No Majesty’s alternatives to feature these guys) it’s deserved.
Jeff Bridges leads the cast as Flynn like no one else, giving one of his best performances since True Grit, not that he’s a lazy guy who coasts on his work. But here he tones down the grumbling Southern schtick he’s sort of traded in since Crazy Heart, and instead lends heart and soul to his role, as well as an element of that old school gentleman we love so much. Similarly, Chris Hemsworth as the Charles Manson-like Billy Lee is a sinister turn from such a leading man.
We might be looking at Best Supporting Actor 2019 here, but Hemsworth has yet to turn in a role this layered and different before. Even in his drama works outside of Thor or Star Trek, he’s played similar, In the Heart of the Sea or Rush have been vaguely heroic or comic roles.
It’s actually in Lewis Pullman and Cynthia Erivo – the newcomers – that the best work comes; both bring innocence to the screen and have a fire that only hungry rising stars can have. There isn’t a moment with them in it where they aren’t pulling out all the stops with their great juicy roles that clearly mean to keep us on board with some characters as others reveal their nastier colours.
People might fall head over heels for this film because of its novelty, or the sheer originality of the film that is speaking to them. People love event films, sure, but they also love something original. It’s no surprise that so many films tried to rip off Pulp Fiction when that came out, and we may see a spike in old-style thriller films, but why not? When the talent behind and in front is so good, it can’t be a mistake that people are flocking to this. In that case… let the bad times roll.