Release Date(s)2018 (January 1, 2019)
Studio(s)Goddard Textiles/TSG Entertainment (20th Century Fox Home Entertainment)
- Film/Program Grade: B
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: B-
In a bow to Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, writer/director Drew Goddard has created the neo-noir Bad Times at the El Royale, set in the late 1960s with decade-earlier flashbacks. The title establishment is a once elegant, now rundown casino/motel straddling the border between Nevada and California. The El Royale has fallen on hard times since the revocation of its gambling license. It’s therefore unusual to have four guests arrive one evening. Flashbacks and chapter title cards help reveal the backstories of the guests and the solitary bellboy and why they all wound up at the El Royale.
The colorful assortment includes Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges), singer Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo), salesman Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm), free-spirited sexy Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson), swaggering cult leader Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth), and Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman), the only employee in sight.
The plot is stuffed with intriguing elements: a woman tied up in a car trunk, money hidden under floorboards, hidden microphones, a secret passage, two-way mirrors, and a pornographic film that could damage the reputation of a celebrity.
Director Goddard uses lots of wide-angle compositions to highlight the scope of the El Royale, a huge set, built within a sound stage, that is essentially a character in itself. Goddard also favors extended, unbroken takes, in contrast to the contemporary preference for assembling a scene from very short cuts. This technique gives the movie an easy, leisurely, yet oddly tense pace as puzzle pieces gradually slide into place. And by withholding key details, Goddard creates palpable suspense as the plot thickens, characters’ facades are lifted, and we increasingly fear that the El Royale might be some guests’ final destination.
The ensemble cast is exceptional and elevates the material considerably. Standouts are Bridges, whose larcenous priest demonstrates a compassionate side, and Ms. Erivo, whose gutsy Darlene is suspicious of her fellow guests and ever on her guard, balances street smarts with ambition and risk. Her voice is lovely, and her rendition of a Motown classic both sets the time period and serves as a key scene about retrieving hidden money. Pullman, whose deskman/bellboy is on the sidelines early in the movie, has his own backstory and becomes a significant player in the climactic moments.
Hemsworth makes his entrance about halfway in, changing the dynamic among the characters significantly, as Billy Lee’s penchant for violence and impatience threaten the gathering. Loosely based on Charles Manson, Hemsworth’s Billy Lee uses his sex appeal and swagger, tools that have served him well, to amass a following. Saddled with too much dialogue, Billy Lee throws off the balance of characters that Goddard has worked so hard to achieve. At this point, the film looks like it was placed in the hands of another director – one content to coast to the finish line with bluster and blood.
Casting is on the money, performances first-rate, production design lavish, and cinematography eerily atmospheric with its muted color palette, rainswept parking lot, dark hidden passageway, car interiors, and views through two-way mirrors.
The Blu-ray features a 1080p transfer. Aspect ratio is 2.39:1. The movie was shot on 35mm film with older anamorphic lenses, allowing brilliant wide-angle compositions that fully showcase the sets. Detailed props, many in bold colors – yellow telephone, red jukebox – look especially sharp. Facial textures come across well, such as Bridges’ grizzled, careworn expression, Ms. Erivo’s smooth complexion, and Pullman’s face after a mishap with a shotgun. The low ceiling creates atmospheric shadows. A DVD and digital code are enclosed.
The English 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is nearly theatre quality. The music was pre-planned by director Goddard and adds a lot to the feel of the piece. Balance is excellent, particularly when dialogue is delivered while heavy rain falls. Gun shots are loud and dramatic, and the sound secretly piped into that hidden passage has an old-telephone quality.
Bonus features on the 2-Disc Blu-ray/DVD Combo Pack include the behind-the-scenes featurette The Making of Bad Times at the El Royale, photo gallery, teaser trailer, theatrical trailer, and 3 Sneak Peek coming attractions.
The Making of Bad Times at the El Royale – Cast and crew discuss the genesis of the film and their reactions to the script. Bridges comments “This is the kind of movie I’d like to see.” Hemsworth notes the script was “unique, full of drama.” Sets had to be built from scratch to meet the specific requirements of the script. The 16,000 square foot set features the parking lot, lobby, rooms, and secret passageway. A few exterior sets were built for wide establishing shots. Color design varied for the motel: cool for the Nevada side (purples, silvers and blues), warm (golds, browns, and oranges) for the California side. Goddard says he and the producers had a “clear idea of what we wanted to achieve.” Songs were part of the script and were presented as such. Studios were told it was a “take it or leave it” deal. If the studio wasn’t interested in securing the music rights, Goddard would withdraw the script. Cynthia Erivo had to sing in real time for multiple takes.
Gallery – Photos show sets and individual props. Typical production stills of actors are not included.
Sneak Peek – Coming attraction clips from Widows, Red Sparrow, and Sorry to Bother You are included.
– Dennis Seuling