First off, until the title card showed up about seven minutes into the film, I thought the name of the movie was "Bad Times at the El Camino" as if this was some Fear Street chronicle about a gangster car where everyone's having a good time until they all die. God I've been in the automotive business for a hot minute. So the El Royale is this formerly glorious gambling spot that straddles Nevada and California in both location and over the top decor (rooms in California are $1 more), and this is where our players congregate in the mid-seventies. We've got Jon Hamm chewing the scenery as a vacuum salesman who's really an FBI agent, Jeff Bridges as a priest who's really a gangster ex-convict who's losing his mind, Dakota Johnson as a hippy with a blowout that must have cost $300, and Thor as a cult leader who can belly dance. From the lesser-known casting cadre there's a hotel clerk/junkie/snitch named Miles and a black singer who sings so much in this movie that I caught myself meditating.
I realize that on paper this may sound like a lot of plot but if that's the case then why did the majority of the 2 hour, 22 minute run time feel like a buildup? I did not need to hear Jon Hamm talk about his accoutrements five times in his hacky accent. I did not need to hear Miles try to confess on four different occasions just to find out he's an altar boy with PTSD from Vietnam. I definitely did not need that horror movie music when there was no horror.
But I'm not saying there isn't payoff here. The place burns down in the third act. We've got a crazy 14-year-old murderer on the run, who has been kidnapped by her sister Dakota in order to be saved from cult leader Thor. But wait! The El Royale is no ordinary hotel, it's a pervert hotel. (Well really a blackmail hotel but try explaining that when Thor's got a gun pointed at your head.) Every hotel room has a big gigantic one-way mirror for Miles to keep an eye on people and report back to management. Jon Hamm finds the other side and witnesses Dakota tying her sister up, so he interferes against FBI orders and unties Baby Dakota and then Big Dakota shoots him and Baby Dakota calls cult leader Thor to come get her and all hell breaks loose.
But then there's a lot of plot points that have ZERO PAYOFF. Where is the FBI raid after their agent is killed? And what was with racist Jon Hamm in the beginning? Was that just to make Darlene even more sympathetic? She's pathetic enough. Also, the black singer is played by CYNTHIA ERIVO OF THE ORDER OF THE TONY. I guess that's why there was literally twenty minutes of her singing a capella in this movie. I hate to insult a Knight of the Tonys, but Cynthia Erivo did not play Darlene well. Removing your wig to reveal a teeny weeny afro does not make you Viola Davis. I'm sorry. I will go hide under a rock.
I need to reiterate that this was not a good movie. But it is the first time in an extremely long time that I had absolutely no idea what was going to happen. All these moody silences, moody singing, moody comic book-like lighting out in the rain - you think you know where it's going, but you don't! Priest Jeff Bridges is about to drug Darlene's drink so that he can tear up the floorboards in her room and get the money he went to prison for. Instead, just as he's turning around, she wacks him across the head with a champagne bottle. I was stunned! And then Thor is actually a very good cult leader! I would like to join the cult of Thor, please, minus the pedophilia and violence.
In the end, Jeff Bridges and Darlene are the only ones who make it out alive, proving this to be a very moralistic tale. Darlene has been downtrodden her whole life but she's been virtuous, so she gets to survive, and Priest Jeff Bridges doesn't remember his own name, let alone his crimes, so he survives. (Side point: is she now his caretaker? Was this all a racist end after all?) Even poor Miles dies, and I was never sold on the idea that he was a junkie. If I'm not mistaken: Thor kills Dakota. Miles kills Thor (and henchmen). Baby Dakota kills Miles. Priest Jeff Bridges kills Baby Dakota.
And ... that's it, I think. That's the movie. It feels like a bunch of cool parts from other movies transplanted into this one with some humming to fill the time. So if you need to fill your time and can't handle Tarantino levels of violence, consider "Bad Times at the El Camino."