THREE AND A HALF STARS Four people check in to the faded El Royale motel. How many will check out?
Jeff Bridges, Chris Hemsworth
PERIOD ACTION DRAMA #ELROYALE
When four strangers arrive at the kitschy El Royale motel in 1969, you know bad things await. It’s why the desk clerk looks so nervous, probably because he has a dark secret - everyone else seems to… So starts this pulp fiction of a movie that goes on a high-stakes, high-gloss ride before ultimately falling short of its considerable promise.
Not that design, cinematography or costume can be considered one of those failures. EL ROYALE is stunning to watch, packed with dazzling visual staging that start with the El Royale itself. A former rat-pack hot-spot that sits astride the California-Nevada state line (one side got the bar, the other got slot machines), it’s fallen so far from favour that it has become a kitschy museum to its own faded glory. Writer-director Drew Goddard (CABIN IN THE WOODS) looses no time indulging himself in fetishising every possible scene, and its nothing if not eye-catching.
The motel is now so quiet that waking the self-medicating desk clerk to check-in is like waking the dead. A problem for a priest, a lounge singer, a vacuum cleaner salesman and a hippy chick who use the time to tell their stories. Yet nothing is as it’s told, nor as it seems; not the priest, not the salesman, not the hippy chick and certainly not the motel which has hidden corridors and one way mirrors for those who know how to find them. The same goes for the secrets of Goddard’s characters which are deliberately revealed as the director skips up and down the timeline with flashes and rewinds, jump cuts and musical interludes (cue the top shelf presence of Cynthia Erivo as the opportunistic singer). It’s a tantalising experience.
So tantalising that it helps you get past the feeling that this is little more than a belated Tarantino knock off. The set up is from his text book and the film is violent enough to be one yet hiding in the shadows are whispers of something bigger (did the government build the one way mirrors, and if so, why?). Yet in being continuously led to the precipice without finding out what’s over the edge only diminishes the experience until we’re left with a film that’s ultimately an exercise in considerable style over rather thin substance. Even with a stellar cast and Chris Hemsworth’s swaggering turn as a Charles Manson-esque figure, there’s no escaping that the sum of mouth-watering set-pieces is so much less than the whole.