DI­REC­TOR Drew God­dard CAST Jeff Bridges, Jon Hamm, Cyn­thia Erivo, Dakota John­son, Chris Hemsworth

Empire (Australasia) - - Contents -

Did we have a good time at Bad Times At The El Royale? Here’s a hint: it fea­tures Chris Hemsworth in his most tor­so­bar­ing role to date. (Yes. Yes we did.)

PLOT Amer­ica, 1969. Four guests check in to a once-stylish, now down-on-its-luck ho­tel. None of them are quite what they seem — and nei­ther is the ho­tel it­self. The stage is set for an almighty reck­on­ing.

BAD TIMES AT The El Royale’s thrilling 1950s pro­logue is a noir check­list. Mys­te­ri­ous man up to no good in a ho­tel room? Check. Trilby? Check. Ci­garette? Check. Sud­den and ex­treme gun vi­o­lence that al­most gives you a car­diac ar­rest? Dou­ble-check. It’s like, how much more noir could this be? And the an­swer is none. None more noir.

This is pre­cisely the point, of course: Bad Times At The El Royale is a 140minute noir work­out, Drew God­dard ab­so­lutely smoth­er­ing him­self in genre from start to fin­ish. It’s the sala­cious cover of a crime novel come to life. Not that it is mere homage. God­dard, who wrote Clover­field and The Mar­tian, worked on Buffy, set up Dare­devil’s de­but sea­son and di­rected The Cabin In The Woods clearly likes to twist con­ven­tion, and Bad Times At The El Royale is all man­ner of twisted.

Ten years af­ter that pro­logue, the film picks up in 1969, where four strangers check into the El Royale. And what glorious guests they are, with glorious names to boot: Jeff Bridges’ priest Father Flynn, Jon Hamm’s vac­uum sales­man Laramie Sey­mour Sul­li­van, Cyn­thia Erivo’s down-on-her-luck singer Dar­lene Sweet, and Dakota John­son’s femme fa­tale, whose name is even­tu­ally re­vealed, but signs the ledger as “FUCK YOU”. Need­less to say, when this lot get to­gether, it’s mur­der.

The Ne­vada/cal­i­for­nia state line runs right through the build­ing, which is dec­o­rated ac­cord­ingly — it’s a ho­tel of two halves, which tells you what God­dard is go­ing for with the guests, all boast­ing con­flict­ing na­tures and frac­tured moral­ity. And early on, Sul­li­van dis­cov­ers the ho­tel houses se­crets of its own, a hid­den tun­nel al­low­ing vis­ual ac­cess to the rooms via one-way mir­rors. Here God­dard and cin­e­matog­ra­pher Sea­mus Mcgar­vey stage a tour de force track­ing shot, an agog Sul­li­van peer­ing in on the guests as they go about their shady busi­ness. The se­quence is a gem, not least be­cause it is sound­tracked by

Erivo sin­gle­hand­edly tak­ing on The

Is­ley Brothers. We haven’t seen a scene like this be­fore. It is ut­terly en­tranc­ing — at once shock­ing and vul­ner­a­ble.

1969 was the end of the dream in Amer­ica — the dream­ers, in fact, had been as­sas­si­nated, Nixon was in charge, and Charles Man­son’s acolytes were on the ram­page, the end­less sum­mer of love re­placed with dis­il­lu­sion, mis­trust and

fear. God­dard takes shots at the abuse of power, us­ing El Royale’s more ne­far­i­ous res­i­dents to re­in­force these larger is­sues, while dark forces con­trol things from the shad­ows. Such timely com­men­tary res­onates, although the film pos­si­bly takes on a lit­tle more than it can chew with this. Or maybe it just doesn’t chew on it enough.

Even­tu­ally it comes un­done a smidge, per­haps buck­ling un­der its own weight as Chris Hemsworth is parachuted in to pro­vide a third act which re­flects the chang­ing times, but has the film tak­ing a slightly awk­ward left-turn. And as fun as Hemsworth is, his guy just isn’t as com­plex as the rest of the gang, who feel fresh, and lay­ered, and new. As he ar­rives, the noir makes way for some­thing quite dif­fer­ent. Tran­scend­ing its roots, El Royale emerges as its own thing; it’s just that by the end, it might not be 100 per cent sure what that thing is.

Nev­er­the­less it is a joy, with hid­den depths and emotional whack. There are many stand­out scenes, with hor­ri­bly tense stand-offs and a whole lot of flair. There is real ten­der­ness and deep sad­ness — Erivo, espe­cially pulling no punches, runs away with the film. And through­out, we are blind­sided, God­dard con­sis­tently yank­ing the rug from un­der us, slam­ming sledge­ham­mers to our guts. ALEX GOD­FREY

VER­DICT A beau­ti­fully staged film with ev­ery­thing is in its place, this is both an af­fec­tion­ate homage and a timely com­men­tary, falling only slightly short of its own am­bi­tion. Classy pulp fic­tion.

Clock­wise Hot-air balloon from just above: out of Royale, shot; guests At the El must al­ways wear check; Chris Hemsworth chan­nels his in­ner Jim Mor­ri­son; Dakota John­son re­ally hated Mad Men.

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