Zack Hohenstein, E23 Reporter

It seems like every character wants to assume a new identity in “Bad Times at the El Royale”. They sneak around, hide things and lie in order to appear as someone else multiple times over the course of the staggering 141-minute runtime. In a similar way, this film seems like it’s doing everything in its power to mimic a Quentin Tarantino film. From its convoluted timelines and shady characters, to its bloated length and excess of dialogue, director Drew Goddard’s movie hits all of the familiar notes. Even the plotline of confined strangers who hide their identities with sinister purposes is rather reminiscent of Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs” and “The Hateful Eight”. There is not much of a question as to what type of film style Goddard was channeling with his effort here. It’s a good thing that Tarantino movies are awesome or else this imitation would be a real bore to watch.

Yes, the style and plotline of “El Royale” is a bit derivative. It’s just a really good style and plotline. The constant twists and changes that the audience witness during the film go a long way in keeping their attention. The writing is mostly sharp, and the performances are even sharper. With a great cast including Jeff Bridges, Dakota Johnson, Jon Hamm and Chris Hemsworth (whose shirtless body served as the central focus of the film’s marketing), the quality acting throughout is one of the reasons the movie manages to be a success. Despite being surrounded by the more well-known stars, Cynthia Erivo delivers the best performance. Playing a struggling singer, Darlene Sweet, Erivo’s vocal chops and acting skills are put to good use. There are multiple scenes in the movie where Darlene practices her singing and these moments serve as a great reminder of the time period when the story is set as well as a welcome diversion from the somewhat bleak proceedings of the other characters.

As each backstory unravels for each character, it becomes clear that things might not end well for everyone. Bank robberies, sadistic cults and espionage are among the secrets that the guests of the El Royale Motel hold. Goddard wisely withholds a lot of the information early on to keep us engaged, instead electing to reveal the drama one piece at a time until it all blows up in a fiery, if not exactly surprising, conclusion. The biggest strength of “El Royale” is knowing what the audience wants. With a star-studded neo-noir thriller, we expect some secretive and shady proceedings to unfold and in that respect this movie delivers.

So what is holding this movie back from the ranks of other classics of the genre? An excess of exposition and slow-moving scenes that stay past their welcome do the runtime no favors. While the multiple layers keep things interesting early on, once they’re all unraveled, things play out in a more expected and typical way. Like a big present under the Christmas tree, it’s wrapped up in a very pretty way but once it’s opened it’s just what you expected you would get, if not necessarily what you really hoped you would get.

This is not to say that the conclusion was disappointing. It’s just a little less involving after the various mysteries surrounding it are all explained. The explanation of Hemsworth’s Billy Lee isn’t quite as interesting as you would want even if it is a bit sketchier than you expect. There are some other questions that never even get answers. While this may be intentional, this doesn’t prove to be any less unsatisfying.

The key to enjoying Goddard’s film is knowing what to expect. From the opening montage of hiding a suitcase full of money in the floorboards to the final violent and messy climax, there are plenty of things to alienate a casual viewer. If you’re expecting a typical mainstream thriller film with headlining stars and a plot that’s very easy to follow, you may check out feeling befuddled and unimpressed with the self-indulgent nature of the movie. However, if the various tendencies and tropes of the established genre appeal to you, there is a good chance you will have a good time watching “Bad Times at the El Royale”.   

Official Rating: 3.5/5

 

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