‘Bad Times at the El Royale’ brings pulp back to theaters (review)

“First time at the El Royale?”

This year, movies have kind of been all over the place. Some are direct hits, such as The Shape of Water, Blindspotting and, of course, Avengers: Infinity War. Others have been complete misses, ones that nobody even wanted to see, such as Action Point, Truth or Dare and the biggest bomb so far of 2018, The Hurricane Heist. So in a year where it’s anybody’s game at the box office, what happens when you throw in a touch of the far out ’70s, the suspense of and allure of early pulp fiction storytelling, and phenomenal performances from a stellar cast all into a film? You get Bad Times at the El Royale.

Set in 1969, Bad Times at the El Royale follows seven strangers who find themselves at the El Royale, a novelty hotel at the border of California and Nevada. But as the strangers -including a priest (Jeff Bridges), a vacuum cleaner salesman (Jon Hamm), a Southern gangster (Dakota Johnson), and a former singer (Cynthia Erivo)- settle into their rooms, they discover that something strange is afoot inside and outside the hotel. Over the course of one fateful night, everyone will have a last shot at redemption – before everything goes to hell.

“This is not a place for a priest, Father. You shouldn’t be here.”

Directed and written by Drew Goddard, the film garners a stellar cast of performers, from the enigmatic Jon Hamm, the iconic Jeff Bridges, the impeccable vocal abilities of Cynthia Erivo and the creepy goodness of Chris Hemsworth. Goddard has a fascinating ability to create tension among great storytelling, obviously recognized by his film credits including writing episodes of the hit TV series, Lost, and 2015’s The Martian, and writing and directing the 2012 horror film, The Cabin in the Woods. His attention to the smallest details in this film spoke so loudly to viewers, as every second of the film is made to keep you at the edge of your seat. From the heightened sounds you hear such as finger taps and footsteps, to the spacial awareness with music being played on the other side of a corridor, Goddard creates a sensation for the ears that engages viewers immediately, and never lets them go.

As I mentioned earlier, the performers in Bad Times at the El Royale move effortlessly in their element, even though their roles seem to be a touch different than what they’re used to. Jeff Bridges and Cynthia Erivo are the two standout performers in the film. Bridges does an incredible job translating his character’s rough mysterious exterior, all the while hiding a fragile and sometimes helpless man. His years of experience in the industry, coupled with his ability to easily convey the “every man” persona, establishes Bridges role as one of his most incredible and emotional performances he’s done to date. Erivo, newcomer to the silver screen, stands toe to toe with the bigger names in the film, and dances with ease around them. Her performance shares how raw and fascinating the actress can be, showcasing her dynamic range as a performer. And speaking of performing, Erivo is an incredible vocalist! The majority of the film’s score during the film is comprised of Erivo singing acapella, adding the beauty of her sound to the incredible tension being held during each scene.

“Did you think that you could just take what’s mine and I wouldn’t come a hunting?”

And then, you have Chris Hemsworth. His performance as the enigmatic cult leader, Billy Lee, is out of this world. It’s stated that Hemsworth lost 25-30 lbs of muscle weight immediately after Avengers 4 wrapped to star in this film, but this de-muscularized version of the actor doesn’t take away from his ability to command the screen. His creepy performance shines so brightly, and does what every true and perfect villain should do in a film: they make you loathe the character. Hemsworth does so well as the character that his previous godly role of Thor melts far behind this deranged and slimy persona he’s created.

The film really sits well in the vein of its era, but another great aspect of Bad Times at the El Royale is that it also carries with it the allure and attraction of early ’40s pulp stories. The stories that are filled with deception, mystery, intrigue and sex, they were the source for a lot of what we see in crime films throughout history. The impact is not lost here, as this style of storytelling fills every film cell with the same mystery, suspense and uncertainty that held the attention of readers long ago. Almost Shakespearean-esque, Bad Times at the El Royale details the events in the film in such a manner that would’ve made even the great Bard of Avon -himself- proud.

“We have to get away as far away from him possible.”

All in all, Bad Times at the El Royale is a film that is so refreshing to the eyes, ears and heart. With incredible writing, directing and performances, the film becomes one of the most memorable of the year. We are in a time where new directors are starting to shine much brighter, and are beginning to take the place of this generation’s iconic storytellers. It’s no surprise that Goddard was going to do a good job, but to see how incredibly Bad Times at the El Royale really excelled, I’m anxious and excited to see what else this director/writer has in store for moviegoers in the future. When it comes to suspense and crime thrillers, one thing is for certain: Bad Times at the El Royale is definitely going to be a film I’ll be talking about for a while.

Rating: 4.5/5 Atoms

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Eddie Villanueva Jr.
Eddie Villanueva Jr. 313 posts

A movie connoisseur of only the finest films, and an Encyclopod of geek and nerd knowledge. And if you know what an Encyclopod is, you're cool too!