Bad Times At The El Royale is a quarter pounder of intrigue and nostalgia
You know that something is probably off with the characters in Bad Times At The El Royale when you see the movie title. The hotel featured in the movie and subsequent title is called "The El Royale." Translated from Spanish, you're basically saying "The The Royale." There's no need for a "the" in there. There’s intention in this grammatical structure. Director Drew Goddard (The Cabin In The Woods) is already throwing you little quirks before you even arrive at the el movie theatre.
Bad Times feels like a throwback to the 90's, an ensemble crime film with a cast of seedy characters who have sketchy pasts, none of whom are quite what they seem. Like an Elmore Leonard novel, the bad guys are likable and charismatic, and the good guys make a lot of bad choices. And you're left hanging until late in the movie to decide which category any of them fall into.
Set in the late 1960's, nearly all of the movie is set at The El Royale - an amazing looking mid-century hotel on the border of California and Nevada- in fact, the state line runs right down the middle of the building. Guests have the choice to stay in either state, space permitting. As the movie gets rolling, we are introduced to the random assortment of strangers who show up to stay on this one fateful night- Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges), a hard drinking priest- Darlene (Cynthia Erivo), a soul singer down on her luck- Seymour (Jon Hamm), a southern vacuum cleaner salesman- Miles (Lewis Pullman, Bill's son), an eager concierge- Emily (Dakota Johnson), a girl on the run from somewhere- and making an extended cameo as a mysterious figure named Billy Lee, Chris Hemsworth eventually shows up to wander around soaking wet and shirtless (I am sure this is meant to be a joke). Only Miles seems to know that the hotel is not what it seems on the surface- judging from his uncomfortable reaction at the presence of Flynn ("Father, this is no place for a priest!"). Having seen Goddard's previous Cabin In The Woods, I was primed for searching for clues throughout, that there may be some grand conspiracy running behind this operation. He turns us into detectives, searching these characters and the inconsistencies in their stories for some sign of how this is all going to play out–and what it all means.
Like Cabin In The Woods, Goddard does so using tropes he knows will be familiar to the audience. Even the title of the film itself seems to be referencing one of the most quoted lines of Pulp Fiction, the movie that spawned a whole genre of its own. And with its non-linear storytelling structure, El Royale seeks to play in that particular sandbox. Yet El Royale is less a genre deconstruction than a genre riff, using a familiar structure to tell the story it wants to tell. 1968 was 50 years ago, and I think ultimately that Goddard is most interested in exploring all the similarities between then and now, using the iconography of the late 60's as if they were artifacts on loan from a museum. Yet this is no rosy picture of the past; things seem just as fucked up as they are now, if not more. After much internal debating, I came away with a very specific read of the film as a modern political allegory (Billy Lee at one point says "here comes an allegory," and Goddard is too intentional a filmmaker not to mean that himself). In the way that it is, I will leave that for you, the viewer, to decide. It is coded so deeply that it feels almost like a Russian film made during the Soviet Union, when filmmakers had to smuggle their political messages several layers under the surface to avoid state retribution.
Ultimately it works enough on the surface, to function well as merely an entertaining slice of pulpy nostalgia. I suppose that Pretty Good Times At The El Royale wasn't going to work as a title.
Bad Times at the El Royale opens in Philly theaters today.