I don’t watch as many movies as I once did.
And, when I do, I tend to watch them fifteen-to-thirty minutes at a time, in installments where I supply my own commercial breaks. My compromised attention span seems more suited for television shows these days. I’m not complaining. It’s just a fact of life, much like the fact that I have to get up at least once a night to urinate these days.
However, we recently went on a trip, and our flight between Atlanta and Puerto Rico was more than three-hours long. Delta provided in-flight entertainment in the form of individual monitors mounted on the backs of the seats in front of us, and a selection of movies and television shows. Sharon and I weren’t required to watch the same things, which was ideal since we wouldn’t have chosen the same entertainment, and the flight attendant passed out ear buds so that we didn’t have to share soundtracks either. It was the perfect situation: side-by-side with the woman I love, but not forced to watch A Star is Born or Instant Family. I mean no offense. I’m sure those are perfectly acceptable movies; I just don’t want to watch them.
Since I was a captive audience, strapped into my narrow seat, watching a full-length motion picture seemed like the perfect way to pass the time. I watched an entire movie on the way to PR, and another on the way home. Bad Times at the El Royale was my “on the way home” selection.
I was aware of the existence of this movie, but I had no real idea what it was about. Plus, like most of the movie-goers out there, as it turns out, I had no desire to see it when it was in the theaters. This is increasingly true of most movies for me (I’m several movies behind in the MCU, for example), although I think it goes deeper than that. I believe the advertising for this particular film failed to spark interest at all. According to that infallible source Wikipedia, the movie grossed $31 million against a budget of $32 million, which is definitely considered a box office failure.
What the ads for El Royale made me think of was a John Cusack movie from fifteen years ago, Identity, about a group of strangers stranded at a Nevada motel where mysterious goings-on are going on during a storm. That feeling didn’t leave me as I began watching this movie, either. The set-up and the eerie, unsettling atmosphere created by the story questions initially generated felt similar to me. I remembered liking Identity up to the point where the story unraveled, and the central mystery proved to be a sham. Guess what also happens in this movie?
I did a quick scan of other reviews to see if anyone else was reminded this strongly of Identity. It did get at least one Reddit shoutout, but the author also mentioned Key Largo and Hotel Artemis. Hateful 8, From Dusk to Dawn and Four Rooms also get honorable mention for their similarities from some other writers.
The Quentin Tarantino connection wasn’t lost on me. Even though Bad Times at the El Royale was written and directed by Drew Goddard, it feels a lot like a QT movie. The violence is sudden, the timeline is fluid, and the period music is omnipresent. I can also imagine Tarantino directing a movie with this cast as well, which is top-notch.
Plus, Quentin has a knack for making movies that are about thirty minutes too long, same as this one.
Here’s the plot. It’s set sometime in the late ’60s or early ’70s judging by the clothing and television shots of Richard Nixon talking about Vietnam. A priest, a salesman, a singer and a hippie converge upon a rundown motor court called the El Royale that straddles the state line between California and Nevada. The place used to be a hip, swinging spot back in the day, but lost its gaming license a while back and now seems all-but-deserted, with a single employee, a bellhop in charge of everything. None of the guests are exactly who they appear to be, but neither is the bellhop. For that matter, neither is the El Royale. The story quickly gets weird and violent, and eventually Chris Hemsworth appears as a sort of Charles Manson-cult leader-type, and the story takes another weird turn. That’s really all I can write without completely spoiling it for you, so I’m going to leave it at that.
Jeff Bridges, who is quickly becoming one of my all-time favorite actors, stars as the priest with the failing memory and a buried secret. Jon Hamm is the salesman who has his own secret agenda. Cynthia Erivo is the backup singer trying to transition to a lead spot (she does her own singing in this, too, and she’s good). Lewis Pullman is the bellhop with a lot on his conscience. And, Dakota Johnson is the hippie who has a young girl tied up in her room.
Everyone hits their marks and delivers their lines with conviction. Hemsworth seems to be enjoying himself immensely during his time on-screen.
I thought the entire cast, both in present time and in flashbacks, did admirable work on this. It was the story itself that ultimately fails them. It seems to lack a nice, solid center, a focus, as we’re distracted by too many Maguffins. The main story itself turns out to be almost too simple, and the attempts to make it more complex just serve to make it less realistic somehow.
The production values, however, are solid, and it is definitely a good looking film. I can see where the $32 million was spent in making this.
It also wasn’t the worst way to pass time while flying high over the Atlantic Ocean. While ultimately disappointing because it failed to live up to the expectations it generated early on, it never stopped being entertaining. It’s worth a one-time viewing for the things that are good about it, but I suspect it will quickly become forgettable for you as well.
Firewater Movie Report Card: C+