Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo, Dakota Johnson, Jon Hamm and Chris Hemsworth lead an all-star cast in this powerful thriller filled with gripping suspense and startling revelations. Circa 1969, seven strangers, each with a secret to bury, meet by chance at Lake Tahoe's El Royale, a rundown hotel with a dark past. Over the course of one night, everyone will show their true colours - before everything goes to hell.
I am quite the fan of film noir and I was just in the mood to watch this movie, so out with the popcorn and the chilled beer (and a couple of pop-up friends who share my slightly skewed sense of humour) and it was showtime! We watched it on my friend's big screen, a real bonus as some of the effects are best seen in detail so you don't miss anything.
From the start, it was obvious that this was a film that veered towards the artistic - although it never took itself too seriously because the comedic elements kept butting in. I imagine the set designers had a ball, with a hotel divided exactly down the middle as it straddled California and Nevada so the decor on each side was different. Sort of like non-identical twins. The most hilarious detail was the juke box - even that was situated exactly on the centre line! As music is one of the stars of the film, the juke box not only symbolised the era in which the film was set, but also provided the "source" for much of the music. I admit to knowing some of the songs and at times annoyed my fellow viewers by singing along!
The story is divided into segments introduced by title cards, each devoted to a different character or happening, frequently overlapping to allow an event to be told from the perspective of more than one individual. This results in a three-dimensional perspective as motivations shift; different camera angles are used extensively to show the action as seen by various characters.
The atmosphere of the mid twentieth century obsession with spies, secrecy, voyeurism and cold wars is evoked through the studied combination of set, music and controlled lighting. A "secret passage" plays a vital part in the plot development; it comes complete with one-way mirrors and movie cameras to film illicit and/or compromising action. Life is cheap; killing is regarded as an everyday occurrence, a way of resolving problems cleanly. Wall decorations feature film and music posters - the leisuretime activities of the period which represent escapism and hero-worship. In effect, the actors themselves are almost secondary to the mises-en-scene.
Even the characters are presented through different viewpoints. Each one has a back story which evolves as the plot unfolds, although this evolving is never strictly linear. Rather, it is highlighted through flashbacks, flashforwards, changes of costume, and redefining through the perspectives of other characters. My personal favourite was John Hamm's salesman (who later turned out to be anything but) - his obnoxious, cringeworthy interactions with anyone perceived to be his inferior were a delight. His put-downs of Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo) and Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman) were hilarious, but also poignant as his behaviour was inspired by people who really did (and sometimes still do) act in this way towards others.
The acting itself was amazing; every last actor was painstakingly cast. Each of the main characters was convincing in their original role, but managed the switch to the "real" version convincingly. Cynthia Erivo's character, Darlene Sweet, did not change in the same way as the others; rather, her development into a confident performer is her main focus. Her singing reflects this progression, providing both additional atmosphere for the movie and a grounding to showcase her own character.
If anything, I thought the film was a bit too long, especially at the end. There were a few loose ends so the viewer had to supply their own version of where-to-next for O'Kelly (Jeff Bridges), but basically it does work as long as there is no expectation of a tidy happy-ever-after. And I thought the title was a stroke of genius. "El Royale" suggests the idea that the hotel might have seen better days, days when the featured poster stars might have stayed over and made it famous before it went into decline. And as for "Bad Times", that must be the tongue-in-cheek understatement of the year.
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