REVIEW: Bad Times at the El Royale

When I describe something as “pulpy” people usually conjure visions of Tarantino sugar plums mowing down good guys with ridiculous weaponry and pithy one liners. Other times they go full Cohen, with half the gore and twice the whimsy. But what I’m actually trying to describe can’t be attributed to any one filmmaker.

“Plupy” is sensationalism. It’s over the top characters, in over the top situations, with over the top dramatics. If you’ve ever read a comic book from the 60s or watched Indiana Jones or just had a classic, somewhat corny, adventure, you understand what I’m trying to get across with the term.

Bad Times at the El Royale is my favorite kind of pulpy cinema.

The kind that revels in suspense, wears its heart on its sleeve, and contains deep truth despite its devil-may-care attitude.

I went in expecting something mediocre at best and left with an experience I’ll never forget. The crowd in my theater literally screamed aloud (a reaction I’ve only seen in giant blockbusters and day-of-premiers) and I screamed with them. It was fun, and poignant, and oh so good.

The movie is about a motel in the golden age of motels, and the serendipitous collision of a lounge singer, a priest, a desk manager, a vacuum salesman, and the wild impulses taken by a California cult, whose leader has the powers of god. If you’re looking for something rad to see this weekend, grab a friend and find a theater.

The acting from both new stars and old is out of this world, the overall visual design feels like a rough and tumble Wes Anderson film, and the soundtrack straight up owns. There’s something incredibly familiar about each sequence but oh so unfamiliar as well. It’s like a mix of classic iconic moments that never actually existed.

The grander themes are distinctly philosophical: human autonomy, fatalism, and the nature of the soul are all tested by the characters in this film. Rather than making any of its characters a one note representation of #thegoodlife El Royale tosses a salad of motivations and backstories in order to force the audience into formulating their own opinions about what is right, wrong, and gray.

The cultural backdrop of the Watergate era gives these issues a gorgeous 3rd dimension by emphasizing parallels to 2018. You have the incredibly relevant us vs them mentality that was just rockin’ and rollin’ in the early 70s, a spoonful of dissatisfaction with current power structures (um yes), and a big heaping pile of injustice/corruption, just for kicks.

The movie has some flaws I didn’t get into for the sake of length (some weak story beats, some odd pacing, an unnecessary scene or two, bla bleh, bla bla) but overall Bad Times at the El Royale was 100% worth the $10 ticket price.