Fate can inextricably intersect perfect strangers’ lives if they all happen to be in the wrong place and at the wrong time, as is the case for the characters in Bad Times at the El Royale, an original and compelling 2018 movie.
It all takes place in 1969, precisely between California and Nevada border, where the elegant El Royale hotel stands.
At this crossroads of two nations comes the seemingly mild-mannered priest Daniel Flynn, at the same time as the charming black singer Darlene Sweet walks in.
Afterward, the eccentric traveling salesman Laramie Seymour Sullivan comes in, followed by the sexy and creepy Emily Summerspring.
The only hotel employee, Miles Miller, welcomes them all by making them sign the register while night envelops the El Royale, and the actual faces and intentions of these bizarre specimens of American wildlife are revealed.
Indeed we have an undercover FBI agent searching the hotel’s secret rooms, where guests are filmed behind false mirrors without their knowledge, a place with a hidden, hot tape that could ruin the career of a powerful politician.
Another of these gentlemen, however, is a recently released ex-convict who long ago hid the valuable loot from a robbery right under the hotel; yet, having memory problems, he no longer remembers precisely where.
Very different is the story of the girls, quite distinct from each other but both running from a violent past as they try to start a new life.
Unfortunately, this past comes back to haunt one of them with a fanatical cult led by Billy Lee, a selfish, exhibitionist maniac; who will not hesitate to kidnap all of them to get back what he believes belongs to him.
However, even the young clerk, Miles, will have his story to tell before the end, reversing everyone’s fate.
Inspiration or copy? Who cares, still great
Drew Goddard is a brilliant director with an inexhaustible imagination from which he brings out characters you don’t easily forget.
Bad Times at the El Royale arrives in 2018, clearly inspired by the rhythm and violent soul of Quentin Tarantino‘s pulp movies, with a story set in the 1960s and seven characters all with a past to hide.
Each has its robust character behind a group of solid actors, including Dakota Johnson, who surprised me here, especially since I never enjoyed the highly successful erotic trilogy Fifty Shades.
This film grabs you from the very first minute and doesn’t let go for more than two hours of its running time, with editing and writing (again by Goddard) cleverly constructed in separate narrative blocks to keep a story full of fascination and mystery alive at all times.
The characters are not much realistic, but has this ever been a problem with Tarantino’s movies or, for example, Agatha Christie’s extraordinary mysteries?
At the movies, it’s what we see and hear that counts, so in this case, there’s cinematography that lives in the unnatural lights of the night amid the reds and blues of the hotel’s neon lights, accompanied by a period soundtrack in keeping with the period that ranges from Frankie Valli‘s doo-wop classics to Deep Purple‘s hard rock.
Although, in general, the dialogues have a cheerful and fast-paced tone, every situation has a dark heart creating a dark and pessimistic atmosphere in contrast to the liveliness of all the characters that meet/clash inside the El Royale.
I read around that many are highly critical of this movie, calling it just a clone of Pulp Fiction. Still, the director’s originality lies precisely in taking a cue from Tarantino, finding his voice, and telling us something very different.
A quiet pulp vacation of entertainment
Let us now look at the evening’s hotel guests and star performers, one by one, starting with the evergreen Jeff Bridges, who plays the confused criminal Daniel Flynn.
With a career as long as the Mississippi, Jeff continues to surprise us movie after movie, and in this case, his performance goes hand in hand with Cynthia Erivo‘s character, honey to the ears when he sings and sweet as sugar to the eyes.
As the sad (but also tough) Darlene Sweet, she first seems to clash, then becomes Flynn’s friend and accomplice, later fighting side by side in the explosive and spectacular final chapter.
I’ve already mentioned Dakota Johnson, under the alias Emily Summerspring, who is still as sexy and shadowy as fans like but with a more profound and complex character, seemingly tough on everyone except young Cailee Spaeny, who plays her sister Rose.
She is a seemingly quiet and pretty little girl, but like all the other tenants of the El Royale, it’s best not to upset her and especially not to be too close when she wields a knife.
Then we have the elegant as well as crude and rude Jon Hamm, as FBI bigwig Sullivan, the first character who shifts gears in the story and takes us behind the scenes of what goes on inside the hotel with all its secrets.
Secrets that Lewis Pullman knows well, as the shy and honest Miles Miller, seemingly harmless but who will instead star in the best action scene in the whole movie.
Finally, the last party crasher, Chris Hemsworth, is super intense as the mad Billy Lee, who eventually abandons Thor’s hammer, topples from the roof up every room in the hotel, creating an unexpected premise for a fast heartbeat climax.