On the border between California and Nevada lies the El Royale hotel and (former) casino. The El Royale, now run down and largely uninhabited, may have lost its gambling licence but from the moment four guests check in, we are open to place our bets on who will come out on top.
As the guest book fills up, we know everything we need to about the company. Staying at the El Royale are Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges); Singer Darlene Sweet (Cynthis Erivo); a hippie who signs the guest book ‘F**K YOU’ (Dakota Johnson); and an exuberant vacuum salesman, named Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm).
Upon first glance, the characters fit into their types so well that you only need to look at the guest book to know all you need about them. However, as much as the El Royale is bi-state, there are two sides to all of these guests.
Everyone has something to hide, and something to gain from staying at the El Royale and there is real amusement to be had in trying to figure out everyone’s backstories from the sparse clues we are given. Nothing at the El Royale is what it seems and the moments where we are finally allowed to peek behind the veil feel like welcome treats.
The El Royale’s overtly metaphorical location (literally bordering two states) extends to the film’s 1969 setting. The hippie era is as good as over. This is no longer the age of free love. A short news broadcast gets the point across: Nixon is in office and America is coming to terms with the reality of pulling out of Vietnam. However, these elements serve more to set the mood of the film, which is far more a pastiche of the late 60s than any meaningful comment on it.
Not that this is a problem. There is a Tarantino-esque joy associated with the soundtrack which is one of the main attractions of this film. Music in this film (which includes the likes of the Four Tops, Nina Simone and Deep Purple) directs our attention, sometimes for the better, but often to distract.
There can be no passengers at the El Royale as you find yourself struggling to make sense of all the twists and turns the film has to offer. The largest shock of the film is so effective particularly because of the music which accompanies it. It is at this moment that the stakes associated with playing at the El Royale become apparent.
In short, Bad Times at the El Royale ends up being a veritable good time, but your satisfaction with the ending may just depend upon who you put your money on to succeed.
Words by Jake Abatan, Images by Claudia Mattei