By: Hawk Ripjaw (Three Beers) –
With Bad Times at the El Royale, Drew Goddard tries his hand at some Tarantino with a setup that sounds not dissimilar to The Hateful Eight.
The El Royale is a hotel that resides smack on the dividing state line between Nevada and California. Half of the hotel resides in one Nevada, the other in California. Arriving at the hotel around the same time are Seymour Sullivan, a vacuum salesman (Jon Hamm), Darlene Sweet, a singer (Cynthia Eviro), Daniel Flynn, a priest (Jeff Bridges), and Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson) and her kidnap victim (Cailee Spaeny). Rounding out the cast are Lewis Pullman as Miles Miller, the over-stressed bellhop of the hotel and Chris Hemsworth as Billy Lee, a cult leader on his way to visit one of the characters.
Everyone is at the hotel for a reason, and everyone hides something. How each of them discovers the other’s secrets is a big part of where El Royale thrives, but it doesn’t quite stick the landing.
Drew Goddard’s impressive understanding of style and space is once again on full display here. This is only his second feature film and his command of framing, camera movement, and blocking is some of the best of his class. Memorably, there are a couple of great very long takes involving camera tracking and character movement that must have taken a great deal of planning but are pulled off nearly perfectly. The production design is Oscar-worthy, warmly recreating a vintage late-60s aesthetic in the design and decoration of the El Royale and making Bad Times one of the most visually satisfying movies of the year.
The performances in Bad Times are universally excellent. Hamm is good fun, Bridges is as compelling as ever, and Erivo is a solid matchup with Bridges. Johnson, much like Robert Pattinson, shows that she’s far more than a bleeding-heart love interest in a garbage romance film. Lewis Pullman not only gives a great performance, but absolutely blindsides with a level of intensity that should be getting him a lot more work in the near future. It’s so much fun to watch so many powerhouses play off each other, bolstered by Goddard’s crackling dialogue. There’s a lull in the pacing around the middle portion of the 2.5 hours-film, but it mostly moves with a strong sense of energy.
There’s also light use of non-linear narrative, exploring how each of the characters experiences some of the night’s events from their perspective. These perspective changes often offer a bit more context to the behaviors of these characters, and it’s fun to see how the movie fills in the spaces.
The first act of Bad Times is absolutely stellar. It lays the groundwork for a great mystery, sets up a lot of intriguing plot threads relevant to the time period, and hints at some interesting character moments later in the film. Sadly, a lot of this potential doesn’t pay off. As shown in the trailers, there is definitely something mysterious and possibly sinister about the El Royale hotel. Some of this ties into the time period and setting, and other bits hint at something far more grandiose and bizarre. However, few of them actually lead anywhere.
There are also some interesting themes explored at certain parts of the movie, but some are fleeting while others end up just being flavor for the world. There are elements of racism and sexism in the front half of the film, and they’re mostly abandoned towards the end. The characters aren’t pushed against each other in a way that feels like they were meant to all meet there, and there isn’t much of a thematic climax to their arcs.
The third act takes things in a very different direction. This finale veers off from what the rest of the movie appeared to be going for. On its own, it’s solidly thrilling and effective as a climax. As a culmination of the events of the rest of the film, it’s less effective. It feels somewhat like a different movie’s plot sort of elbows its way onto the screen, leaving the arcs of the rest of the movie’s events in the background. As a way to tie the rest of the film together, it doesn’t work. In spite of that, the ending features a pair of interesting visual elements that provoke some thought.
It’s best to go into Bad Times at the El Royale expecting a standard genre film, rather than a deconstruction like Cabin in the Woods was. It’s atmospheric, well-made and packed with great performances, and is one of the more straight fun experiences of the year.
But there are a lot of questions asked in the first act that aren’t answered in the finale. A lot of early groundwork is set up for Bad Times that is never fully delivered on. The end result is a film that doesn’t quite get all of its pieces to fit together, but so many of those pieces are wonderfully conceived and memorably compelling. Bad Times at the El Royale doesn’t quite stick the landing, but its engaging personality and tight focus on character and setting make it worth a watch.
Bad Times at the El Royale (2018) Movie Drinking Game
Take a Drink: for every death
Take a Drink: for every recognizable song
Do a Shot: whenever Darlene sings
Take a Drink: for every change in perspective