Review: ‘Bad Times at the El Royale’ (A Quentin-less Tarantino Film)

The second film from writer/director Drew Goddard.

On the day before a stormy night in 1968, a group of strangers arrive one by one at a once-prestigious Lake Tahoe destination: the El Royale, a hotel-casino built on the border between California and Nevada. The short guest list includes an aging priest (Jeff Bridges), a struggling singer (Cynthia Erivo), a hippie chick (Dakota Johnson), and a vacuum salesman (Jon Hamm). The only clerk on-site is Miles (Lewis Pullman) who also doubles as everyone else needed to run the hotel. Over the course of the evening, secrets will be revealed, lines will be crossed, and blood will be spilled — not necessarily in that order.

From the talkative nature of the quirky overwritten characters to the intertitles announcing each chapter, El Royale feels like a love letter to Tarantino. It’s almost criminal Quentin doesn’t turn up as a vile character to be killed or isn’t overheard narrating a necessary yet muddled scene. The cast is also up to similar standards along with a polished, detail-oriented location, but does Goddard add enough of his own original spin to the proceedings to make this award-baiting movie style his own?

The El Royale is a fictional location, but it’s supposedly based upon a real-life location that mimics its fictional history. It’s also a character unto itself, holding secrets of its own and subject to the same fate as any character within. Where Goddard overtakes his directorial inspiration is in brevity, an ability to edit a scene to the straining point of disinterest before something explosive and/or meaningful happens — a skill Tarantino has recently applied toward his own reduced running times. Even at 141 minutes, it feels pretty tight, stumbling slightly at the end but wrapping everything up with a satisfying bloody bow.

While Hamm and Bridges give their usual all to the characters they inhabit, here’s a special nod to Chris Hemsworth; while he doesn’t have a lot of screen time, what he gives is something we need to see more of: dangerous attraction. While Dakota Johnson does fine, Cynthia Erivo stands out as does Lewis Pullman with his mild-mannered Miles. With so few throwaway parts, the competition between these characters for audience attention is as fierce as the drama; split-second decisions made on who-trusts-who (and when) keeps viewers guessing. It’s too bad a few faceless background characters appear late in the film when the main characters were so personally drawn, but the final reveals make up for the lost intimacy — it’s well worth it.

What makes El Royale work is discovery and decision in a very tight drama, similar to lock-box horror films where no one escapes until the movie ends and the survivors are tallied (shades of The Cabin in the Woods, Mr. Goddard?) It needs no prequel, no sequel, and is near-perfect as is. Goddard seems to have a knack for managing ensemble casts; will that skill benefit his attachment to Fox Studio’s slated X-Force movie starring Deadpool?

Bad Times at the El Royale is rated R for strong violence, language, some drug content, brief nudity, and a fifty-fifty split.

Four skull recommendation out of four

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