Settling down to see this film in a near sold-out cinema, a feeling of comfort (partly due to the brand new recliners at the Odeon De Lux in Derby) and happiness overcame me – the cinema felt like how it used to be. I had taken up a seat in an almost empty cinema for the past 5 years but now it seemed like it was becoming appreciated again, a treat to go. All of this felt great until it was ruined by one single man on the front row, shouting about how terrible he thought the film was… shattering the memories of cinemas gone by.
But I digress. Bad Times at the El Royale was not what I thought it would be – a narrative cut up and re-ordered from different perspectives across four rooms and two states: Nevada and California. The El Royale hotel is straight out of your Americana dreams. The sweet spot where plastic booths and juke boxes just about outweigh the sheer seediness of a motel where the door opens out onto the car park, not the hallway.
The stories follow five interwoven characters, connected only by sheer bad luck. The ensemble cast are impressive Americana caricatures, but the luck is so bad that these ‘bad times’ are a little too coincidental to feel organic. What are the chances of an FBI agent, kidnapper, cult escapee and robber checking in on the same day, at the same hotel but be the ONLY people there besides a struggling, talented singer?
It’s a coincidence that’s hard to overcome but once you embrace it for its style – a hyperbolic game of Cluedo – you can dig in and enjoy the action. It all comes to a head in mysterious ways, plot lines look to be opened up but are left as red herrings dotted around the narrative to make you feel like you know what’s going on. This trickery, mixed with the impressively tense scenes, drags you to the edge of your seat as each story rarely plays out the way you expect it to.
Because of the intercut narrative, there are moments where you feel you’re rehashing the same events from unneeded angles. But, sit through it. Because as the tempo slows, it becomes apparent that these moments are there to give your nerves a bit of a rest as the unpredictability spirals and the direction of the film leads you astray. Eventually we’re lead to Chris Hemsworth’s Buffalo Bill homage, Billy Lee – a bad guy who’s just too close to Ted Levine’s portrayal in Silence of the Lambs.
There’s a fine line between inspiration and copycat.
All in all it’s a solid pastiche of films from the past, with a modern-day spin, allowing for filmic trickery to put you on edge. Although it drags at times, it wraps up nicely and leaves you content with the finale, even if it is somewhat dishevelled.
Take it as a bit of fun with an incredible soundtrack and you’ll enjoy your stay.
Best moment: Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo) and that singing voice, what a dream. This paired with her strong instincts make her formidable, terrified and fed up all at once.
Confession: I did expect Jodie Foster and Sterling K Brown to show up having confused the film with Hotel Artemis.
Cinema rating: Snack wrappers and crunching pails into insignificance compared to the front row psycho who shouted Shut the fuck up! every time Darlene sang. Why?