Bad Times at the El Royale is about a group of individuals, each hiding something under a veil of deception, who meet at the titular Hotel. A singer, a Priest, a Southern criminal and a vacuum salesman are among the sketchy individuals who gravitate to the El Royale. In a story taking place on both sides of the border between California and Nevada, Bad Times presents a powder keg, one filled with chaos that just needs a one small match to ignite it. The place has dark history, and hell is going to break loose when the truth comes out.
I love Drew Goddard. He is not the most famous writer/director working in Hollywood when compared to say… Christopher Nolan – but he always delivers solid films. Cabin in the Woods was a brilliant comedic take on horror genre tropes and The Martian was an enjoyable sci-fi film about survival. Goddard’s new film, Bad Times at the El Royale is an entertaining and suspenseful crime thriller. It is not perfect and the script has some noticeable flaws, but that does not make the film any less enjoyable. Goddard’s masterful direction, excellent score and many twists, Bad Times keeps its audience on their toes up until the very end.
Bad Times at the El Royale is first and foremost a suspense film that keeps the audience guessing. Each character in the film is hiding behind a charade or is keeping their motivations a secret, and Goddard uses a non-linear structure for the story that slowly reveals the truth behind every lie. The startling revelations combined with a ‘no-one is safe’ approach keeps the audience sitting on the edge of their seats, unable to anticipate what will happen next. It also helps that Goddard set his neo-noir tale in an empty motel seemingly removed from the world, adding another layer of unease to the well directed film.
Masterfully shot, Goddard’s long takes and tracking shots – as well as beautiful set design – makes Bad Times more than just easy on the eyes. The film opens with a wonderful prologue where the camera never moves but Goddard instead uses the placement of characters and editing to show the passage of time. It is a clear and entertaining scene that slowly builds audience anticipation for the main story by establishing the first of many mysteries.
The score and timely music selections add a whimsical nature to the dark film which helps balance the more violent moments with elements of dark comedy. Michael Giacchino, who has scored some of the most popular and well received blockbuster films of the last decade, provides a score that only heightens the tension in the story. When combined with Goddard’s camera movements and the beautiful set design, it creates a final product that almost feels like the child of Alfred Hitchcock.
The characters are not all fully fleshed out, but the audience is given just enough information that they can relate to most of the characters who find themselves in a perilous situation, though this is largely due to the excellent performances. Featuring an ensemble cast of actors, each gives an excellent performance even if their character isn’t more than just an archetype. John Hamm gives an incredible performance that is the most enjoyable part of the first act. Playing a vacuum cleaner sales man who isn’t on the up and up, Hamm plays the two sides to the character excellently.
Jeff Bridges is the broken old man in this film – a priest who is at the El Royale for a purpose, even if it seems like a mid-road trip stop. His performance brings out the pathos in Goddard’s script and allows the audience to feel for a character who is not exactly the best person you could ever meet. The most significant and rewarding arc is given to his character, which works very well. Cynthia Erivo plays one of the least fleshed out characters in the film, but provides one of the best performances in the film. A singer trying to take control of her own life, Erivo brings more depth to the role than what is written in the script. Dakota Johnson’s the southern criminal on the run, with a difficult past behind her that results in a guarded and mistrusting individual. Johnson nails the role with a calm, yet aggressive demeanor that captures the troubled backstory in Goddard’s script. Her character, Emily Summerspring, is undoubtedly one of the most compelling characters in the film. Chris Hemsworth’s character has very little depth and is littered with clichés, but the actors’ inherent charisma allows for Billy Lee to become an entertaining antagonistic force.
By far the film’s biggest flaw is how it wants to make the El Royale a character in the film, yet fails for the most part. When being introduced to the motel a brief history is given, and as the film progresses the story slowly reveals the seedier aspects of the Royale. Essentially this is a place the both produces and attracts evil, but the place never truly stands out the way it should. In Kubrick’s seminal work, The Shining (which I am by no means comparing this film to in full), the Overlook becomes a character as its evil influence brings out the worst in Jack Nicholson’s character. The place is just as much a villain as Jack Torrance, but the same cannot be said of the El Royale in Bad Times. A greater emphasis on the characters instead of the location would have probably been a better direction to take.
A mix of tragedy and positive life changing moments, Bad Times at the El Royale is one of the most enjoyable films I have seen all year and is definitely worth a second viewing. With great technical precision, an amazing cast and more thrills than most films in the genre – Bad Times is a highly recommended viewing experience.