'Bad Times at the El Royale' is a grimy good time, for the most part [Review]

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"Alias" and "Lost" writer-producer Drew Goodard turned cinematic heads back in 2012 with his meta-horror directorial debut, "The Cabin in the Woods." After the success of that film, which turned horror movie clich├ęs in over their heads, his cinematic career consisted of mostly writing successful pop-entertainment screenplays such as 'The Martian,' '10 Cloverfield Land,' and 'World War Z.' Not too shabby for a self-proclaimed 43-year-old movie geek, mostly known, up until then, as JJ Abrams' secondhand man on television. Now, six years later, Goodard returns with an ambitious 140-minute film infused with Tarantino-esque influences, the tongue-in-cheek titled "Bad Times at the El Royale." Although Goodard has been known for never adhering to formula in the past, this latest endeavor from the filmmaker is, however, steeped in more conventional influences, even if his intentions are quite the contrary.

This violent story of seven strangers, all with their own malevolent, personal secrets, who randomly meet at a once well-known hotel bordering California and Nevada in the 1960s, is excessive in both positive and negative manners.  'El Royale', has enough meat in its unnecessarily lengthy running time to be given a chance, at the very least, by Goodard and Abrams enthusiasts. The influx of pop-culture references, grindhouse violence, and impeccably delivered performances keeps this train going, until it derails when a new character is added into the mix in its final stretch.

The 'hotel movie' genre is tackled here (shades of Mangold's 'Identity' and even Tarantino's 'The Hateful Eight'), as the kindly, dementia-stricken Father Flynn (Jeff Bridges) checks into the El Royale with struggling back-up singer Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo) waiting in back of the line; there's also shady salesman Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm), a regular at the joint, and Emily (Dakota Johnson) with her hippie gear and hot-rod car, who, we soon find out, holds a bound and gagged woman (Cailee Spaeny). The El Royale management is nowhere to be found, and supervising powers are given to Miles (Lewis Pullman), a shy, loner-type bellboy/front desk clerk who has a hidden agenda of his own.  

And so, room by room, their backstories are revealed, and not only are we listening in but so are powerful, unnamed players that manage the hotel, a kind of Illuminati/above-power elite, who install two-way mirrors to peek at the various rooms. Goodard uses nifty, pattern-structured flashbacks to give us backstories for all the characters involved and what actually led them to be at this grimy hotel. Of course, one may argue that the chances of having seven total strangers, all coincidentally with nastily kept secrets, converge in a hotel on the same night is stretching it in terms of realism and plausibility, but the demographic lured to this kind of movie might not really care for things such as plausibility. This is dime-store novel territory.
The overindulgence does eventually catch up to the film, as a Charles Manson-like figure (played by a miscast Chris Hemsworth) shows up to the proceedings, as if an exclamation mark had to be added in by Goodard, a "ah-ha!" moment if you will, to try and one-up the well-paced narrative that preceded him. It's too bad, because up until Hemsworth's appearance I was rather enjoying the B-movie tropes on display, the way Lisa Lassek's editing and Goodard's direction converged to form fully penetrating gruesome entertainment, one which is rarely delivered this well by a major studio these days. [B-/C+]

'Bad Times at the El Royale' will be released in theaters nationwide on October 12th