Bad Times at the El Royale

 

            This is a gritty, hard-edged movie with a lot of up-close violence, but juxtaposed with plenty of irony.  Though Chris Hemsworth gets top billing, because of his natural star power, the iconic Jeff Bridges gets most of the screen time.  And he does “bizarre” really well.

            We begin with one still camera, panning a hotel room.  A man enters, fidgets, takes out a pistol to lay it on the dresser, and proceeds to roll up the carpet, move the furniture, pry open the floorboards, and hide a suitcase.  Then he puts everything back where he found it (we fast forward through most of it), and then, finally, somebody knocks at the door.  But his entrance is more dramatic than we anticipated.  And in the background is some lively 50's music to help pinpoint the era.

            Now it's 10 years later. Same hotel, right on the State line between Nevada and California.  In fact, the hotel's lone employee, Miles (Lewis Pullman), with a grand flourish, introduces the unique bi-State aspect, and is also quietly insistent that they pay $8 each for a room and 25 cents for the coffee.  He looks harmless, but remember nothing here is as it appears.  The man who introduces himself as a traveling salesman of vacuum cleaners (Jon Hamm), and puts on a phony Southern accent, is actually a federal agent.  He finds an astounding number of recording devices hidden in his room, and figures they must be all over the motel.  The guy who's dressed like a priest (Jeff Bridges) doesn't really look or act like one.  We later get some backstory on him which gives us a clue about his real identity, and what he might be doing at that hotel, but he also gets a big surprise from the third guest, Darlene (Cynthia Erivo), who has a beautiful voice, and claims to be a professional singer on her way to Reno. Here's another opportunity to both play the jukebox for pop tunes (think Motown hits) and juxtapose a happy soundtrack as backdrop to some deceitful characters.  The fourth hotel guest, Emily (Dakota Johnson) appears to be kidnapping someone, but it also seems it's someone she knows. Rose (Cailee Spaeny) looks like the victim here, but she may not be as innocent as she appears, either.

            Enter the villain, Thor.  Or at least the actor who's played Thor enough that we're not at all surprised to see how ripped he is with his shirt off, which is most of the time.  Here, though, Chris Hemsworth is not the hero, but the bad guy, the Charles-Manson-like leader of some kind of hippie cult that he controls with a mesmerizing combination of persuasive speaking and personal dominance and yes, a kind of mind control over a group of weak-minded people clearly lost and wandering.

            We find out that all the mirrors in the rooms are actually two-way, which opens up the possibility of all kinds of perversion, but this isn't prurient.  We're too busy playing a strange form of Russian roulette with a real roulette wheel, while the jukebox continues to play 60's Motown hits.

            We all know this isn't going to end with happily ever after for everybody.  But after a while we wonder if it's going to produce a happy ending for anybody.  But in the midst of all the raging carnage, there is an incredible moment of redemption in the ruins.  Absolution asked and granted.  It's a breathlessly spiritual moment in the middle of a godless brawl. 

            “Bad Times at the El Royale” is not for the faint of heart.  But for the more adventurous moviegoer, it's a high-impact, Tarantino-like bundle of serial shockers, nestled into the menacingly casual, and seasoned with classic soul music. 

 

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association