Most years, there’s usually at least one film that seems to appear out of nowhere and offers up an unexpected surprise. Last year, we had two - the deliriously stylish and ingenious comedy ‘Game Night’, and Drew Goddard’s thrilling puzzle-box ‘Bad Times at the El Royale’. Neither achieved the box office success that they deserved, but you watched them with the confidence that, one day, their time would come. This feels particularly apt for ‘El Royale’ if only because it’s a film that demands revisiting, partly due to its impeccable craft and terrific performances, but mostly due to one central conundrum - what the hell is this film even about?
I left my first viewing of the film both satisfied and unsatisfied, and a lot of that had to do with trying to work out what writer/director Goddard was trying to say. His choices, from the character tropes to the very specific time and place, suggested that every move on in this strange game of narrative chess was deliberate, and I suspected that repeat viewings might help crack the puzzle.
’There was no violence until you.’
‘Yeah, maybe. Maybe not. But it’s there now, isn’t it?’
The puzzle of ‘El Royale’ unfolds carefully, first establishing the characters converging fatefully on the El Royale Hotel, built on the state line between California and Nevada. The first clue though is in the year it is set - 1969. Anyone with a knowledge of American history and culture knows that this is no arbitrary year, a turning point from the idealistic post-war optimism towards the oblivion of the 70s. It’s the year of Woodstock (the height of the Summer of Love) and Altamont (its crashing end), and the election of Richard Nixon as President of the United States, the year of Apollo 11 and man walking on the moon. Vietnam is showing no signs of slowing, the Cold War has become a way of life. The first generation born after the war are pushing back against the one before, causing social, political and cultural shifts. The civil rights of African Americans were spiralling even further into chaos, as the promise of Kennedy was unfulfilled. And it’s also the year of Charles Manson and the murders committed by his family, an act of barbaric and senseless killing that felt like the generational, racial, cultural and political chaos had reached its dangerous zenith, a threat that it all could collapse at any moment.
If Goddard had simply made an Agatha Christie-style mystery about a group of strangers in a hotel together, it probably would have been a satisfying piece of entertainment. With ‘El Royale’ though, he goes for something more ambitious, a kind of distillation of one of the most fascinating years in American history, a point-of-no-return that would resonate for decades to come. The El Royale becomes a microcosm for America itself, its inhabitants separated by cultural, generational and idealistic divides. One of the shocks of the film is how violent and unforgiving it is, and how easily that violence is dealt out by its characters. Each must survive at all cost, and the lengths each is willing to go to, their willingness to sacrifice their humanity to achieve it, leaves the others terrified and desperate. ‘El Royale’ feels so much bigger than its wonderfully self-contained concept, the sense that you’re watching a riddle about the nature of history and culture itself, and the joy of revisiting it, aware of where the many narrative threads are headed, makes it even more satisfying the second time around.
It also helps that it’s just a damn good film. Goddard’s script sparkles, but his direction is often wonderfully inspired, held together by a series of extraordinary set pieces that demonstrate a keen and inventive understanding of cinematic storytelling. He often takes his time, allowing characters the space to breathe and grow, and where others would have faltered and allowed the film to feel flabby, his ability to hold the tension and how he constructs the narrative building on cliffhanging revelations keeps the film together beautifully. It’s also a sign of the strength of the project at just how impressive a cast he is able to assemble, featuring Jon Hamm, Dakota Johnson, Lewis Pullman, Chris Hemsworth and Nick Offerman. The heart of the film though are the performances from Jeff Bridges as Father Daniel Flynn and the electrifying Cynthia Erivo as singer Darlene Sweet, who end up becoming the soul and moral compass of the film.
The El Royale becomes a microcosm for America itself, its inhabitants separated by cultural, generational and idealistic divides.
‘Bad Times at the El Royale’ is a special kind of film, one that manages to hold you on the edge of your seat and be wildly thematically ambitious all at once. Drew Goddard’s film shows how all parts of a society are connected, how politics and popular culture, race and class, young and old, conservatism and counter-culture form a vast web where each of influenced by the other, whether they know it or not. It captures the spirit of a time in unexpected ways, less about its killer soundtrack and amazing 60s look and more in its tone, its unsettled energy, its unexpected eruptions of violence. ‘El Royale’ really was one of the unexpected gems of 2018, and I suspect it’s a film we’re going to be talking about for many, many years to come.
PICTURE & SOUND
‘El Royale’ was shot my cinematographer Seamus McGarvey on 35mm film, and that very specific texture translates beautifully in the 2160p 2.39:1 transfer, taken directly from a 4K DI. There’s a diffused, subtle look to the transfer (surprisingly more so than the 1080p Blu-ray included), and while the colour and clarity doesn’t make it a reference quality presentation, I suspect that may have more to do with Goddard and McGarvey’s intentions. The 4K resolution really celebrates the film grain structure, giving the film a really tactile texture. The disc also includes a Dolby Atmos 7.1 track that again isn’t exactly a showoff, but features beautiful sonic detail. The film was finished in Atmos, so it’s great to hear the artistic decisions replicated here so beautifully. The 1080p Blu-ray disc included features a DTS-HD MA 7.1 track.
As usual, all the special features are found on the included Blu-ray only and while there’s not a lot on offer with ‘El Royale’, there’s one feature is worth checking out. ‘Making Bad Times at the El Royale’ (28:35) is a surprisingly thorough affair for a standard making-of piece, though it’s more interested in the technical side of the film as opposed to the thematic. It’s a pity there isn’t a commentary included, as it would have been wonderful to hear Goddard break down the film and his intentions. Otherwise, there’s an image gallery, and the teaser (2:05) and trailer (2:03).