By Ariel Fisher
The El Royale is a hotel that straddles two states: California and Nevada. In all its faded glory, it still embodies the sunny charm of California and the glitz and excess of Nevada. But deep in its walls and beneath its floorboards hides a secret – or seven. And once those secrets come out, only blood and death await.
This magnificent hotel, a testament to days past, is the home of Drew Goddard’s directorial follow-up to The Cabin in the Woods – Bad Times at the El Royale. The stakes were high, and unfortunately, they don’t entirely pay off. At over two hours and 20 minutes, the film runs far too long, takes itself a touch too seriously, and is denser thematically than seems necessary. But where it succeeds it does so in spades.
It’s 1969. Richard Nixon was newly in office as President, Vietnam still raged on, and the Tate Murders shook the States to its core. The glean of the early 1960’s was long gone in this post-JFK world, and darkness started to creep into the fabric of daily life. In this regard, Goddard’s script functions beautifully. It captures a sense of grief and loss of something more wholesome. The Priest searching for something lost he may never get back; the backup singer looking for her big solo break; the kind-looking hotel manager trying to cope with unknown demons; the sisters hoping to save one another from their own ideas of oblivion. But the weight of such a sentiment never feels fully realized.
Our protagonists all arrive at the titular hotel, perhaps one of the films’ most fully realized characters. Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges), Darlene Sweet (Tony-winner Cynthia Erivo), Laramie Seymour Sullivan (a very un-Draper Jon Hamm), and Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson) all arrive close together, searching for refuge. But the big question is from what? Everyone’s ever so slightly on edge, as if there’s something bubbling below the surface of their skin itching to get out. But what? Enter mild-mannered hotel manager Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman), shaken into duty by Erivo’s Darlene as he hops to attention, and gives the textbook schpiel about this once exquisite destination. But no one cares. They all have agendas, however carefully hidden, and have no time for Mile’s well-intentioned attention.
The cast of characters hurry to their corners of the otherwise-abandoned hotel, motives unclear, secrets well kept … for now. Gradually, across the overly long runtime of the film, we’re granted glimpses behind the curtain of each of their stories, as one unfolds in greater detail to reveal something new and unique about the other. These complete strangers are intricately woven together in their seclusion. And when the levee eventually breaks, it cracks wide open, flooding everything in its path.
Goddard is an ambitious writer. Having previously worked on films like Cloverfield, The Martian, and his directorial debut, The Cabin in the Woods, expectations were high for this film. The marketing alone promised a high-octane character study that seemed to hone in on what made Cabin so wonderful – get a bunch of unique characters together, and lock them in a room. Add heat. Wait until it comes to a complete boil, then let simmer violently until ready. But where Cabin managed to keep its audience on the edge of their seats with a tight pace and clever twists, the result here feels half-baked. What can be described as Goddard by way of the Coen Brothers and Tarantino lacks what all three filmmakers bring to just about every film they make – rich character development, and pathos. The bones are all here, but, in the end, it simply doesn’t have enough of the right meat on said bones to flush it out.
The result is a bloated film that could have shaved off a good 20 minutes to keep things feeling a bit more vivid. Where Cabin beautifully balanced humour with horror, here Goddard seems to be trying for profound meditations on memory, morality and loss of self with peppers of levity. In this blend, things tend to get a little bit muddy. A balance is never properly struck, and so we’re left wanting.
That being said, when this film succeeds, it does so by leaps and bounds. The performances from everyone involved are outstanding – yes, even Chris Hemsworth as the Manson-esque cult leader Billy Lee who seems to never wear shirts that close. His comedic timing is perfectly blended with a sense of mania that’s genuinely threatening. Bridges makes a stunning turn as Father Daniel Flynn who, as we know from the trailers, isn’t really a priest. But to divulge much else would ruin the impact of his performance. Johnson lends an air of mystique to an otherwise obtuse femme fatale, while Hamm manages to cash in once again on his Don Draper charm, although this time with a bit more white trash thrown in. And Pullman offers a surprising turn as a troubled, if underdeveloped, young man with far too many secrets.
But the true hero of this film lies in the hands of Cynthia Erivo. The Tony Award-winning actress (she won for her turn as Celie in the Broadway production of The Color Purple) does magical things with a complex character that, in any other hands, would have fallen flat. Her performance brings depth and grace to the character of Darlene Sweet, a backup singer hoping to get her big solo break in Reno. Her voice adds soul and pathos that the film desperately seems to crave, but can’t seem to capture. The heart of the film may be buried beneath the El Royale, but the soul lies in Erivo’s hands, and she delivers.
After the complex ins and outs of Cabin, fans will be expecting a lot from El Royale, and with just cause. Unfortunately, it doesn’t entirely deliver. It’s not quite as fun as it should be, it’s weighed down by an unnecessarily long run-time, and the depth of the film’s themes are just a hair too shallow. The marketing promises a fast-paced, high-octane ensemble. What the film delivers on is certainly a wonderful ensemble cast with stellar performances. But, sadly, it doesn’t offer much else.