This is less a review and more of an analysis. I believe this movie attempted to be Tarantino and it did it poorly. And there is nothing more annoying or cloying to me than to try to be Quentin Tarantino and fail.
For those who have not seen it and still want to continue anyway, I will offer a very brief synopsis. The El Royale is a hotel that exists on the border between California and Nevada (though nothing cool is used out of this concept). A single operating employee is in charge of a run down establishment, where various characters stay at the hotel for one night, and each for different reasons. The resulting shenanigans are meant to be suspenseful and to keep you guessing until the very end. The structure of the movie is somewhat episodic, as it has chapters in each character’s perspective, while also providing some overlap so you get to see the same scenario from various perspectives.
Overall, the performances are there. Jon Hamm arrives as a yokel salesman by day and FBI agent by night. Dakota Johnson is a steely-eyed older sister looking out for her groomed and cultish younger sister Rosie. Cynthia Erivo brings her innocence to the table, as she just wants to get to Reno to start her singing career, while Jeff Bridges masquerades as a catholic priest who is really a robber out of prison looking for him and his partner’s bank haul underneath the floorboards. Latecomer Chris Hemsworth is a handsome cult leader, chasing down his closest fan while exacting terror in his wake. And maybe the employee, played by Lewis Pullman, is more than meets the eye.
The first problem with the movie is it did not know what kind of movie it wanted to be. It surprised me because Drew Goddard, the same director of Cabin in the Woods, knew exactly what movie that needed to be. It took common tropes of Western horror and critiqued it, while simultaneously singing the praises of horror in the East.
In The Martian, the basic premise of Robinson Crusoe on Mars got smoothed over in the movie and made for a better viewing experience than one to be read. Where the author had difficulties with the tone, Goddard and actor Matt Damon were both able to paddle straight down the middle of the river effectively.
In Bad Times at the El Royale, the movie had an opportunity to be a paranoid suspense: just why exactly is the hotel collecting information? It could have been serious (FBI), historical (Cold War), or surreal (aliens?).
The movie could have also been a critique of systems of thinking. Contrast the FBI to the cult and make them complex. Such is the case with Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, where the exaggerated contrast between culture with Philip Seymour Hoffman and nature with Joaquin Phoenix was enough to give us pause.
The movie could have also gone into slapstick insanity like that of Hot Fuzz or conspiracy humor like Burn After Reading, where deaths occur without rhyme or reason. I thought after Jon Hamm’s death this was a total possibility, but many characters are not given enough information of the hotel or the interrelationships to do such a thing.
So instead of lamenting for what the movie could have been, we should spend some time critiquing what is there.
Firstly, we have several disparate stories that do not quite collide well. The recording of a famous politician does not lead to any place but a fire, as the entire idea of the hotel and what it is and what it is trying to do literally goes up in flames.
The Malibu Massacre is a story shown repeatedly at the front desk television. It was most likely carried out by Rosie, has the two ladies on the run with Hemsworth hot on their heels. The cult story intercepts the original either due to lack of confidence with the hotel material, or because the desire for some Tarantino style tension was more important. The end result, with Jeff Bridges’s character breaking the tension into a fight is a disastrous scene. The dialogue does not have the strength of Tarantino’s writing to carry anything but indifference. The fight scene not only carries on for too long, which makes it difficult to release that tension, but it also does what I would assume to be always a bad idea, which is to have a flashback in the middle of a climax. Lewis Pullman’s character is apparently a crack shot, a well-trained soldier who saw time in Vietnam. As such he is easily capable of disposing of the bad guys, though a little naive when it comes to terrifying young girls.
The end result is a satisfying actionable conclusion, but any of these moments, when thought about for longer than the duration of the movie, leads to a lot of problems.
So while the overall direction of the story has problems, the enacting of the story has complications too.
Jeff Bridges and Cynthia Erivo have a long conversation where he reveals his onset of dementia. Cynthia leaves to change the track on the jukebox, while Jeff Bridges goes and fetches them another drink. Covering the glasses with his body, Bridges drugs her whiskey glass. When Bridges turns, we see that Erivo is not at the jukebox, but right in front of him, and she smashes a wine bottle across his face, knocking him out.
It is a shocking trick at first, and we never see it coming.
When they try to explain how Erivo could have possibly known that Bridges was about to drug her, her response is, “A shaker can spot a shaker I guess.”
Which is no explanation at all, when you think about it.
And what’s worse is that the characters sort of admit to the lunacy of it, as Bridges goes on to say that, had she been wrong, she would have knocked out a kindly old priest with memory problems.
And nothing in Erivo’s character leads us to believe that, even if she knew that Bridges was trying to drug her, if this would have been her solution for getting out. Her character had been established as calm and collected, responding to Jon Hamm’s overt sexism and prejudice with silence, (as that likely would have happened in the 1970s). Would she have responded to Bridges like this?
Again the movie sacrifices credulity for a quick sound byte. Dakota Johnson and Rosie dispense with Jon Hamm, who is trying to save Rosie, and discover the secret two-way mirrors present in a secret observation hallway running parallel the hotel rooms. Bridges admits to Erivo the hidden money under the floorboards of her hotel room, and so the two, worried about Dakota Johnson on the warpath, have Erivo sing a tune at the mirror, in order to hide the sound of Bridges as he digs into the ground to grab the hidden money.
First of all, there is no indication that Dakota Johnson and her sister are still in the hallway. Nor is there any reason to think that, just because they shot Jon Hamm, they need to shoot everyone else. For all they know, Bridges really is a kindly old priest, Erivo is a singer looking to get to Reno, and they still remain in their rooms as a fierce storm blows over. No one heard Jon Hamm outside as he lifted the hoods of every single car to pull the starting wire, and though they most likely heard the shotgun and mirror glass, if no police arrive then it seems as though both characters have opted to bunker down and stay quiet. The only reason they know that the two are going after them is because Johnson outright says they should. And that’s the audience, not the characters.
So what follows is a “cool” scene of Erivo singing (wonderfully, I should add), in order to fool Johnson into thinking that nothing bad is happening. Once she sees that Erivo is singing, she seems to be content in thinking that the other characters are none the wiser.
When problems occur within the hotel, there is no attempt by the movers and shakers behind the hotel’s secret mission to set things to right. Instead, the hotel erupts in flames, along with very lucrative and compromising evidence, and there is no such whisper either by the FBI when Jon Hamm fails to report back, or by this secretive society. But there does seem to be an immediate response by Hemsworth and his cult.
I think the problems coalesce into assuming that viewers of a movie are more interested in set pieces than in the overall arching plot. An easy comparison would be to the James Bond films that Daniel Craig was first in. Casino Royale wonderfully provided a three act structure and offered twists and turns that foreshadowed and…more importantly, had a pay off. Eva Green’s love knot was a very early piece of jewelry that only came to light at the very end when she betrayed Bond (spoiler, sorry).
Quantum of Solace, however, is all payoff. It is a non-stop action romp with hardly any dialogue or sense. Clearly filmed during the writer’s strike, it attempts to carry the film using intense plane crashes, burning buildings down, and offering a somewhat awkward arc about revenge that does not quite have a lesson in it, only an explanation to Olga Kurylenko about how to do it.
Each moment of Bad Times at the El Royale is set up without much payoff. And when it attempts to provide payoff, it does so cheaply.
It’s a shame too, because the reputation of the actors and actresses, as well as their performances, are quite impressive. Everyone showed up here with every attempt to give the film the kind of gravitas that celluloid delivers.
But the problems in this film are all top-heavy and backstage. It was in concept, in ideas, in writing and directing, rather than in acting, set-design, costumes, period piecing, and in cinematography.
It’s the perfect movie to watch to see how a movie can specifically be dead on arrival, before the first scene has been filmed.