Bad Times at the El Royale is an absolute delight and one of the best films of 2018.
The Drew Goddard spectacle features Jeff Bridges as Dock O’Kelly, a criminal posing as Catholic priest Father Daniel Flynn; Cynthia Erivo as Darlene Sweet, a down-on-her-luck soul singer; Dakota Johnson as Emily Summerspring, a hippie-turned-criminal; Jon Hamm as Dwight Broadbeck, an FBI agent masquerading as vacuum cleaner salesman Seymour “Laramie” Sullivan; Cailee Spaeny as Rose Summerspring, Emily’s younger sister and a cult member; and Chris Hemsworth as Billy Lee, a Charles Manson-esque cult leader. Lewis Pullman, who starred earlier this year in The Strangers: Prey at Night, turns in a notable performance as Miles Miller, a concierge who is revealed to have some personal demons of his own.
Set in 1969 at the delightfully tacky El Royale, O’Kelly, Sweet, Broadbeck, and the older Summerspring arrive at the same time to check in to the mostly-deserted Lake Tahoe hotel that runs straight through both California and Nevada (reminiscent of the well-known Cal Neva, which was once owned by Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Chicago mobster Sam Giancana). All four guests have their own reasons for journeying to the El Royale and each story is examined in a painstakingly detailed manner. Ten years prior, O’Kelly’s brother buried a bag of money from an armored car heist under the floor of one of the rooms. He is promptly killed by one of his partners in crime, but the money sits undiscovered. O’Kelly was in on the caper and went to prison for it. Recently released and suffering from a form of Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, he comes calling for the long-buried loot.
Sweet used to be a backup singer for a girl group, but her career hit the skids and she drove all the way from Bakersfield, California for a one-night engagement at a Reno casino. Broadbeck is working undercover for the FBI to retrieve a film that’s implied to show President John F. Kennedy engaged in sex. Summerspring comes to the lodge after kidnapping her younger sister from a cult. After Broadbeck discovers a hidden passageway within the walls and that two-way mirrors are being used to spy into guest rooms, he stumbles onto the kidnapping and then things really get hopping.
I loved Bad Times to pieces. From Erivo’s impressive vocal stylings to Hemsworth’s abs (he’s shirtless during the entirety of his appearance), the 2 hours and 21 minutes of the story are chock-full of fun. And the soundtrack. Effervescent, joyful, and a toe-tapper from beginning to end, my retro-loving soul was thoroughly pleased. The film’s opening song, 26 Miles (Santa Catalina) by The Four Preps is still playing in my head hours after the film ended. Also featured is a vocal cameo from legendary FBI director J. Edgar Hoover and brief TV appearance from President Richard Nixon. The whole thing feels like shades of a Quentin Tarantino film, and I mean that in the best possible way.
I enthusiastically give Bad Times at the El Royale 5 stars.