Everyone and Everything Has Seen Better Days in Caper ‘Bad Times at the El Royale’

Bad Times at the El Royale” pulls from a long line of caper movies with multiple storylines and A-list Hollywood stars. Set in 1968, anyone with a casual knowledge of 1960s scandals will not fail to recognize the specific sources for this serpentine narrative of disguise, lies, buried treasure, sex and murder. All the elements a movie like this should have in abundance.

El Royale is a Lake Tahoe lodge in decline since losing its gambling license. Based on the real life Cal Neva Lodge that straddled the border between California and Nevada, the El Royale hides a decade of secrets involving significantly well-known and powerful individuals. The real Cal Neva was bought by Frank Sinatra in 1960 with partners Dean Martin and the mobster Sam Giancana. So it is not difficult to imagine exactly which well-known men influence this tale.

Like a Rat Pack “Grand Hotel,” the film opens as a classic Studebaker pulls in to the parking lot. Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo) steps out, pulls a couple of rolled carpets from her trunk. Turning to the lodge, she hesitates at the sight of Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges), a Catholic priest vacantly preoccupied. Coming to his senses, he joins Darlene and they enter the lodge together.

Inside they encounter a loud Southern salesman, Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm). Sullivan lays claim to the bridal suite and complains about the service. And for good reason. It is another five minutes or so before the room clerk Miles (Lewis Pullman) shows his face. He’s a nervous, mousy young guy, this Miles. It would be no surprise to suggest than none of these seemingly misfit travelers or the clerk are who they say they are.

The same doesn’t apply to hippie girl Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson) who tears up her tires squealing into the parking lot. Wishing to stay anonymous, she signs the ledger with a scrawled “Fuck you.” And they all part to their assigned rooms. Some on the Nevada side and others choosing California.

From this moment on, the mysteries and contradictions are revealed, evoking a dark and corrosive past for each of the characters. There is violence (a lot of violence) and murder and blackmail culminating with the arrival of Chris Hemsworth as Manson-like guru Billy Lee. But Manson was never this hot. This is more like if Jim Morrison had led a cult, or to be more exact, Val Kilmer playing Morrison had led a cult. To put it even more succinctly, Hemsworth is Brad Pitt (who never played Morrison) playing Kilmer playing Morrison playing Manson leading a cult. Either way, Hemsworth just struts bad news for everyone involved.

One can imagine all these actors must have had a lot of fun portraying these misfits. The performances are all dead on. Johnson plays hard-core tough, turned cold by an abusive childhood. Hamm makes the most of his too short screen time chewing scenery.  

Bridges and Erivo get the most opportunity to shine. But the most memorable performance comes from the lesser-known Lewis Pullman as the guilt ridden Miles. He is the biggest mystery of all them but the one with the most soul.

Running a bit too long, “Bad Times at the El Royale” is smartly written and directed by Drew Goddard. He brings to it a strong sense of genre and the period. Collaborating to provide a lush 60s milieu is the Irish cinematographer Seamus McGarvey and Production Designer Marvin Wist.

’60s R&B dominates the evocative sound track. The single introduction of rock n roll tune brings a harsh rebuke from one of the characters.

“Bad Times at the El Royale” is worthy entertainment, full of violent twists that can keep you guessing. It’s represents the dark and corrupt side of ’60s nostalgia, the one that Flower Power helped us forget.

Bad Times at El Royale” opens Oct. 12 in most theaters.