Review of Bad Times at the El Royale (2018)

Cast: Jeff Bridges, Dakota Johnson, Cynthia Erivo, Lewis Pullman, Jon Hamm, Cailee Spaeny and Chris Hemsworth

Written, Produced and Directed by Drew Goddard



Bad Times at the El Royale is slice of film noir. It is a story about many stories and it takes place at the El Royale Hotel & Casino of Reno, Nevada. This fanciful resort straddles the state line between California and Nevada, a metaphor for the fractured events that are about to unfold. An ominous undercurrent pervades the introductory scenes where each of the mercurial guests introduces themselves, awaiting check-in.

The diction, storytelling, and nuanced behaviors of the enigmatic characters serve as poignant portends of what’s to come. The film requires a suspension of disbelief. Suffice it to say, nothing is what it appears to be. Throughout the introductory scenes, viewers are left with what can perhaps best be described as a sense of bewilderment.


Menacing Characters

Drew Goddard attacked this project with ferocious intensity, both in his sublime writing style and his direction. It is a fusion of Quentin Tarantino storytelling sans the wanton mayhem, with an intelligent screenplay that keeps you guessing until the final moments. Each of the characters in the film has a deep, dark secret.

The film is difficult to watch, at times utterly repugnant yet it is captivating in all its obscenity. The characters are not likeable people. They are treacherous fiends, lascivious offenders, and cult leaders. Even the seemingly innocent are guilty of heinous crimes. It would be folly to dismiss Bad Times at the El Royale as yet another Hollywood attempt at box-office worthy filmmaking; this film is surprisingly effective at making the viewer feel uncomfortable and entranced.

Bad Times at the El Royalecaptures the essence of the time; the epoch of the 1960s where J. Edgar Hoover ruled the FBI with an iron fist, the Vietnam War was raging, and cult movements were drawing in hapless victims from across the United States. In spite of all these paradoxical influences, viewers are treated to deep characters with real emotions, fears, and aspirations.


Deep, Dark Secrets Behind the Walls

Throughout the film’s 141-minute duration, there is never a dull moment. The subject matter is difficult to digest. It is peppered with uncomfortable themes, inappropriate content, sadism, voyeurism, violence, and malevolence.

Were it not for the characters’ sharp wit and guile, this motion picture may well have been relegated to the growing list of flops and follies of filmmaking. To be clear, Bad Times at the El Royaleis not an easy film to watch, nor is it intended for every type of audience. As a crime mystery saga, it surprisingly works wonders.

The artfully decorated backdrops set the scene for a captivating film. The mise en scene allows the audience to surrender to the bizarre world of the El Royale and its shady owners. Nothing is what it seems, and this is what allows the mystery to rapidly develop into a powerful dollop of storytelling.

The rich history of the El Royale boasts an impressive array of guests from yesteryear, including the famed Rat Pack, and other stellar performers. Nestled in the outskirts of Reno, Nevada the El Royale is known to many in closed circles. This seemingly pristine establishment hides a deep and dark secret and it’s all about to come crashing down in a tumultuous two-hour saga.


Decommissioned Casino

The hotel was recently decommissioned as a casino resort, yet there is ample evidence of sprawling roulette tables and gambling facilities at the hotel. For the casino aficionados among us, there is a surprisingly different version of Russian Roulette which is played towards the finale. The film dispenses with traditional favorites in European and American Roulette, instead opting for the cliched appeal of Russian Roulette and a .357 Magnum. Any more information on that would certainly tarnish a story worth telling. The film appears to borrow from tales like Pulp Fiction, with multiple retellings of the same events from different characters’ perspectives.

There is just enough meat in this story to keep you chomping on the bit and wanting for more. Jeff Bridges dazzles as Father Daniel Flynn; a rugged and believable character tormented by his failing mind and his transgressions. Kudos to Cynthia Erivo for passing on the opportunity to bet on red or black in rouletteand speak her mind in the face of true evil. The era of the1960s is captured with finesse and precision. Nothing’s out of place, from the technology of the day (don’t expect online casino at this resort) to the guest registration register. Everything fits snugly, just the way it was supposed to. Beyond the semantics and the crazy antics, one cannot help but admire the courage of the characters and their desire to right the wrongs of their lives throughout their grueling ordeals.

There is no right or wrong way to play the game in Bad Times at the El Royale; it’s a story that is geared towards absolution, come what may. The film extols the virtues of making good choices, and it evokes a sense of contentment in the closing credits. It’s tough to watch, inexplicable at times, but ultimately rewarding. The musical score is magnificent; Darlene Sweet’s voice will melt your heart.

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