Earlier this year, Hotel Artemis, a film with a big name cast gathering inside a hotel for various reasons, was released. It didn’t last long in theaters, and it’s not hard to understand why: the film couldn’t figure out what it wanted to be as the majority of the cast sailed through their usual schtick without much passion behind it. None of the characters were all that likable, mostly because, aside from the Doctor (Jodie Foster), we never really got to know any of them outside of their overt personalities, so their choices didn’t give us anything to identify with or hold onto. Fast forward a few months to Bad Times at the El Royale, another film with an all-star cast about a group of strangers coming together at a hotel for their own nefarious purposes. The similarities end there, as El Royale turns out to be what Hotel Artemis was hoping to be.
Unlike Artemis, El Royale spends plenty of its two hour runtime developing each character, beginning with a brilliant introduction of the core group. Within minutes, we meet Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo) an aspiring singer seeking a better life away from her sordid past with men; Father Flynn (Jeff Bridges), a priest on his way home after visiting his brother; Laramie Sulliven (Jon Hamm), a vacuum salesman stopping for a quick respite; and Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson), a young woman who wants to be left alone. Each one is painted with a specific brush that distinguishes them perfectly, showcasing different levels to their personalities (no matter how small) before we fully get to know who they really are and the reasons behind why they are at the hotel.
The rest of the film is broken up into small chapters to reveal the answers to those questions. Father Flynn is actually a thief looking for a stash of money hidden away from an old heist while Emily is running from someone after kidnapping a young girl. But the characters aren’t the only ones we learn has an agenda. The hotel itself, run by a kid (Lewis Pullman) with his own past he’s trying to run away from, is also hiding a secret that everyone learns about individually through their unwelcome stay. As the relationships build and secrets are exposed, we become more engaged in what’s happening and where the film might be going. By the time Chris Hemsworth shows up as a cult leader with a bone to pick, we’ve completely invested in these people’s lives and have chosen who should and shouldn’t survive the rain-soaked night.
Bridges and Hamm both bring their A game, supporting the rest of the cast with exactly what they need to rise to their level while at the same time separating themselves from the pack. Erivo is best when she’s singing to keep herself occupied, though certainly holds her own among the heavyweights, including Johnson, who seethes with just enough bitchiness but keep her relatable. And lest we not forget Hemsworth, who delivers a killer performance. With all of the heroes he’s played in the past, there’s no doubt he’s making his case to play more rich, layered villains in the future. The one character I thought could have been developed better was Pullman’s bellboy, as his backstory isn’t fully realized until the very end, at which point, you don’t have time to fully ingest it before what he’s hiding is put into play in a big way.
Where the film gets a bit sticky is in the third act. Writer/Director Drew Goddard spends a lot of time developing the characters with several subplots and backstories, but doesn’t seem to know where to take the film, abruptly ending their stories with very little flair or reason behind why they brought certain things to light in the first place. One example is in the hotel itself. They spend a lot of time setting up the fact that the hotel sits on the California/Nevada border, splitting it so that half is in California and half is in Nevada. But this idea never plays into the actual plot in any significant way other than being a really interesting gimmick.
That aside, Goddard has a clear vision and knows what he wants to accomplish. I can’t say the film had anything new to offer in technical aspects, but that doesn’t take away from the overall essence of the film; it actually adds a bit of flavor to the familiar — a twist of intrigue mixed with a hint of something that borders on some weird fetish of enjoyment. There are a couple of scenes that do a very good job of setting the atmosphere for the film as a whole, even as from a story standpoint, things fall a bit short. I guess that’s life, though. You never know what’s in store, and the more you hide who you are, the more you start to lose yourself under a hidden identity where your secrets will be concealed forever because there’s no way out from under them but death. Had Hotel Artemis had an ounce of El Royal‘s flair, it too may have found a voice that sang to the masses with a song of iniquitous gratification.
My Grade: A-
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Damien Chazelle does a terrific job depicting the feel of traveling through and being in space, however First Man falls a bit short when it comes to the rest of the story, which at times feels very disjointed and hollow, adding to a slower pace that keeps you from fully investing in Neil Armstrong’s desire to travel to the moon. B+
Next week, new movies include Halloween, The Girl in the Spider’s Web and The Hate U Give. If you would like to see a review for one of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.