Bad Times at the El Royale Movie Review: A Thrilling Genre Bender

If there was an Oscar given for Most Well-Marketed Movie of the Year, Bad Times at the El Royale would easily be a front runner. The film’s marketing is so in sync with the shroud of mystery that surrounds it up until the final climax.

Even while you’re watching the movie, it’s difficult to determine what kind of movie you’re watching. Is this a black comedy? Is it some kind of horror movie? Are we watching an Agatha Christie-style thriller? What kind of movie is this? Well, I can tell you one thing: This movie is a total blast. Its genre bending continuously messes with your head but it’s quite an amazing experience. If there’s anything that the marketing gets wrong, it’s the word “Bad” in the title because this movie is far from it.

It’s best not to describe the synopsis to avoid potential spoilers. So, I’ll just say that the film mainly involves a group of strangers who stay at the El Royale motel, which sits at the border between California and Nevada, and each one of them is hiding a secret. But some of their secrets start to really unfold with the sudden arrival of a charismatic cult leader named Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth).

The film also feels like an homage to Tarantino because it’s divided up into chapters and features a nonlinear narrative. It even has a running time of about 2.5 hours like the movies in Tarantino’s filmography. However, it never feels as long as it is and on a side note, it does better with its female characters than Tarantino’s last two films.

As the mysterious strangers up to no good, every person brings their A-game. However, the MVP amongst them is easily Cynthia Erivo who plays Darlene Sweet, an aspiring singer. Erivo is a very soulful presence throughout whether she’s acting out her singing or demonstrating Darlene’s open hearted yet tenacious nature. As we watch her on screen, we’re watching a star being born and thankfully, because she has Widows coming out next month, we don’t have to wait long to see more of what she has to offer.

Although, Dakota Johnson manages to be a major standout as well. As Emily Summerspring, a woman on the run with her sister, Johnson plays an anti-hero who is neurotic yet possesses fierce determination. Now that she’s freed from the Fifty Shades movies, here’s hoping that she can tackle more roles that properly utilize her star power.

Then there’s Chris Hemsworth who wonderfully plays against type as Billy Lee, a Charles Manson-type cult leader. Once he arrives in the third act, the film becomes even better than before and not just because he wears an unbuttoned shirt throughout. Despite some pacing problems in the final act, Hemsworth still makes it come alive with his manic, manipulative charm.

Along with the genius, consistently deceptive writing by writer/director Drew Goddard and the luminous cinematography by Seamus McGarvey that finds bright color in the stormy night, the acting ensemble manages to be a driving force in Bad Times at the El Royale. Even if El Royale isn’t a game changer for whodunit thrillers, it still manages to be pleasing for fans of such films.

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Matthew St.Clair

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