Bad Times at the El Royale
2 hours 11 minutes, R for Tarantino-Style Gun Play (with comparable levels of blood splatter)
Fair Value of Bad Times at the El Royale: $4.00. Its a solid choice as a streaming rental, solid without being particularly distinct, entertaining enough.
Norman Bates, Travis Bickle, The Manson Family, and Nixons Plumbers walk into a Casino. Bad Times at the El Royale is a caper collision catastrophe style of thriller film. Which is to say, the plot is that a whole bunch of criminal and sinister people converging on an isolated locale, hi-jinks ensue, and then it becomes a cavalcade of who back-stabs who, when they do it, and whether they pull it off.
What makes Bad Times distinctive, besides the casting, is the setting. Taking place at some point in the early 1970s, the film has a literal murderers row of anxieties of the 1970s: a Charles Manson style hippie cult, Goodfella Mafiosi, a psychotic Vietnam war veteran, a serial killer, and sinister agents of the FBI acting on behalf of J. Edgar Hoover. If only they’d thrown in the Black Panthers and a biker gang, they would have presented the set of 1970s era bad guys.
Prequel to the Shining? Despite having no overt supernatural elements, this film could be posited as a setup to The Overlook Hotel, and its ghosts. I mean you have a wide spectrum of sordid people meeting abrupt, tragic, and violent deaths in a rural luxury hotel located deep in the mountains, cut off by a storm. Jack Torrance would not have been out of place in the story.
The Casts The Thing: Films like this are contingent on the character actors in the roles. In this instance, Cynthia Erivo has the standout performance. Shes playing Darlene, a C-list Mo-Town performer, reduced to doing the 6PM shows at failing third rate casinos. Erivo deftly manages a balance of terror and street smarts. More than anyone else, she carries the film.
Other than that, Chris Hemsworth is having fun as Billy Lee, the Charles Manson-like cult leader. All of his charisma and enthusiasm here is turned into a gleeful sociopathy. Its a dramatic turn comparable to Henry Fonda in Once Upon A Time in the West, and Hemsworth is clearly reveling in getting a different character to his usual casting.
The Menace of Stillness and the Disjunction of Song: Writer/Director Drew Goddard (The Cabin in the Woods, The Good Place) is clearly working from a mixture of the Tarantino and James Gunn approaches to film-making. The sound-track is the psychic structure of the film. That being said, he has a greater patience than those. He permits the suspense to build in long, silent still shots, calling to mind Coppola’s The Conversation, in terms of the mounting paranoia as the characters learn all the secret passages and double mirrors which pervade the casino.
The Fading Memory of the Dying Past: This film has two minor demerits. First, the dialogue is short on natural conversation and ambience. The script is rapidly moving from exposition to twist to banter, but theres no sense of real socialization. Secondly, the film lacks in a certain amount of verite that might be found in a Scorcese piece. The cast is, for the most part, millenials playing Baby Boomers. Compared with a piece set in the same time zone, like Spike Lees Black Kkklansman, Bad Times doesnt feel connected to the 1970s. Its a film that has all the trappings of the Watergate era but with none of an organic connection to the times.