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‘​​​​​​​Bad Times at the El Royale’ Is an Inventive and Indulgent Thriller

(Source: theatlantic.com)

Every “room” (meaning every guest and staff member) at the El Royale gets its own dedicated segment of the movie, complete with a Tarantino-esque title card. Just like Quentin Tarantino, Goddard revels in messing with timelines, with each new story shedding light on the ones that came before. The film El Royale most evokes is Tarantino’s extremely flawed recent effort The Hateful Eight, a post–Civil War Western that threw eight strangers into a remote cabin and had them bounce off one another. El Royale doesn’t have the nasty streak that movie had, but it’s similarly wrestling with the death of the American dream, just in a more melancholy manner.

Read: “The Cabin in the Woods” disembowels the slasher film.

Who are the occupants at the El Royale? There’s Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges), a marble-mouthed priest with a spotty memory who seems intent on renting a particular room. Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo) is an aspiring singer looking for a practice space before a crucial gig. Laramie Sullivan (Jon Hamm) is a vacuum-cleaner salesman with a Louisiana accent that could be described as Foghorn Leghorn–adjacent. Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson) is a cowboy-boot-wearing stranger with a bad attitude and a mysterious sister (Cailee Spaeny) in tow.

Each one has a grim story to share, and that’s before the arrival of Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth), a charismatic, frequently shirtless cult leader who rolls into the action late in the game. Nobody at the El Royale is telling the entire truth, but it’s quickly obvious that Darlene is the hero of Goddard’s movie. She’s given two arresting set pieces, one early in the film, centered on Erivo passionately belting out a song while all kinds of exciting action play out around her. The Tony-winning Erivo is a great actress, an even better singer, and the biggest reason to see this film.

But there are plenty of other intriguing elements at play. In elaborating on his ensemble’s backstories, Goddard furiously mixes in the sins of the Vietnam War, the tawdry legacies of the Kennedy and Nixon administrations, the looming specter of widespread drug addiction, and the dark side of the free-love movement. Some of it feels seamless, and some of it seems shoehorned in; one of the best characters exits too quickly, while the least interesting one dominates in the last hour.

Still, I have to applaud Goddard’s ambition, even when it overreaches. Yes, Bad Times at the El Royale is bloated and might’ve functioned better as a punchy bit of neo-noir. But it’s rare for a genre film to feel so sweeping and inventive; in fact, The Cabin in the Woods is one of the most recent examples to come to mind. This is a story where the many plot machinations are in service of grander thematic points. There might be too much going on, but as the final act descends into carnage, Goddard is at least trying to say something.

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters@theatlantic.com.

David Sims is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he covers culture.

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More Info: theatlantic.com

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