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Byron Shire
March 8, 2021

Cinema Review: Bad Times at the El Royale

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There is a pronounced influence of the Coen brothers in writer/director Drew Goddard’s bizarro/noir bloodletting flick. Set in the sixties and heavily reliant on a fantastic, mostly Tamla Motown soundtrack, there are hellish flames and flashbacks, quirky characters and scenes shot from multiple points-of-view, along with violence that wavers somewhere between visceral and slapstick. But the movie most strongly resembles the Coens’ oeuvre in that it clearly believes in itself as a profound allegory of the human condition – and all that that entails. Goddard has a lot of enlightening stuff to download on us, from religion to feminism (the paintings on the wall of the hotel’s lobby are not exactly subtle), from greed to redemption to child sexual abuse, so inevitably he spreads his story with a broad brush to cover all bases. But I was glued to it. Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges), who is not really a priest at all, has found his way to the El Royale after doing time in the pen for an armed robbery. A bag of stolen money from the heist is hidden under the floorboards of one of the rooms. Another guest is Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo), a wannabe pop star who does a knock-out version of the Isley Brothers’ This Old Heart of Mine. On a dark and stormy night, Emily the hippie arrives with her little sister Ruth (Dakota Johnson, Cailee Spaeny), whom she has dragged away from the influence of cult leader Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth). An FBI agent posing as a vacuum cleaner salesman (John Hamm), there to investigate earlier hidden-mic buggings, discovers a hallway lined with two-way mirrors through which the sordid activities of previous visitors, including a prominent figure in society, have been filmed by the guilt-ridden young manager (Lewis Pullman), a Vietnam vet who is strung out on heroin. Murder most foul and chaotic ensues. The atmosphere is tense, the visuals lurid and the little dance that Hemsworth does with his skinny jeans biting into his groin is a hoot.

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