Bad Times at the El Royale

Bad Times at the El Royale ★★★★½

As much as I enjoyed this the first time, I think I underrated it. It’s pretty impeccably constructed around its central conceit and motivated thematic work. The characters are all richly sketched out and the narratively continually surprises you as the collisions between fully autonomous beings go their own ways within a confined space. The violence is harrowing, the humour is tight, and the story of a passing era is told with gravity and maturity.

It feels like someone took Hateful Eight and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, put them in a blender, and then used the resulting smoothie to tell a quieter, more complicated and ambitious story. It has the structure and themes of the first without wearing out the welcome of the gimmick or feeling like the tool of using violence to tell a story about women in relation to men of power is an excuse. And it has the designs of the latter without needing to sensationalize a real tragedy or to deaden the impact of the story with the blood, laughter, and general entertainment value.

This is also a great rewatch film. It does a great job putting you in the world and establishing stakes and dueling perspectives but once you know who everyone is and where they are going in a first watch it’s so much fun to meet them all over again.

And the way it constantly shifts and reveals new permutations is commendable. It’s effectively five different films happening at the same time and just happening to run into one another. A heist film, a star is born, a cult escape, a spy thriller, and an exploitation horror all start separately and the end result comes entirely from the characters in a heist film making the decisions that they should make that just so happen to run counterintuitively to the decisions made by the characters in the spy thriller. All the drama and tension comes from a real place of characters just doing what they should be doing.  

Quite simply, everyone makes human choices at the most basic level of understanding and everything is built on top of that. And because the foundation is so sturdy, it all just works. The actors can do their jobs and the circuit can complete itself, bringing us through to an unforeseeable but ultimately inevitable conclusion that meditates on the end of the hippy days and the coming of the gritty era, and the way that to marginalized people it’s all the fucking same because it’s still just loud men at the top trying to consolidate their power.

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