Director: Drew Goddard
Starring: Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo, Dakota Johnson, Jon Hamm, Chris Hemsworth, Lewis Pullman
There’s a lot to love and a lot of kinetic build-up in Bad Times at the El Royale, but the question of satiable payoff is ultimately up to the viewer, payoff that this reviewer doesn’t believe was ultimately reached. Sporadic and an almost literary use of flashbacks for character motivations and depth, a conglomeration of people who have lived full lives in one setting, this film should feel it was tailor-made for me, as someone who’s always preferred character over plot, or at least a noteworthy equilibrium between the two. But this is a film of multiple stories, and many felt unfinished and realized, and at over 140 minutes I genuinely believe that Bad Times at the El Royale should be longer.
Much like the film itself oftentimes does, let me backtrack. Most of the cast listed above, save for Chris Hemsworth, all meet up at the titular El Royale. Nothing that seems apparent is the truth, as they are all liars. Jeff Bridges is a priest reeking of dishonesty, Cynthia Erivo is an unaccomplished and embarrassed R&B singer whose spent her life getting played, Jon Hamm carries an accent that’s all too fake, and Dakota Johnson doesn’t say much of anything and writes “FUCK YOU” instead of signing her name. And then there’s Miles Miller, the boy at the desk, who, in the context of a film coated with sleaze, is just too innocent to be true. Nobody doubts he’s hiding something. The group signs in and goes to their respective rooms, where director Drew Goddard then begins to show one hellish night over and over again from the perspective of the patrons.
To put it straightforwardly, I loved Goddard’s use of flashbacks—carefully woven together, they provided the audience the minimal and necessary details to understanding what brought them to this estranged and forlorn inn, and most of them were sympathetic characters, despite their noir shadiness. You don’t want to be in their shoes, and likely never will be, but will emphasize with their sufferings. Most of the characters have a sense of likability, and I was disappointed when what I thought to be the most interesting player of this twisted game was shot and killed before the film was half over. But misunderstandings, suspicions, and disagreements are what move the plot forward here, and they escalate it to a larger-than-life fantasy of Goddard’s vision.
My biggest qualm with Bad Times at the El Royale is its third act. Chris Hemsworth is introduced as a deranged cult leader akin to the one in Mandy. He’s given a little backstory, but its hardly relevant; all that matters is that his rampage through the hotel is what’s moving the plot along now. Then the film becomes about him. Not about the money under the floorboards, or who shot that guy in the film’s opening minutes, or why the managers engage in voyeurism, or even why they bothered setting the film on the line between California and Nevada. So much of this film feels unfinished, and what could’ve been an epic and one of the best films of the year becomes a sigh of disappointment from the talent that brought us the wonderful horror satire The Cabin in the Woods.
This film feels as though Goddard simply wasn’t ready for a project of this scale; as though it’s caught somewhere between an unfinished script or an overworked one. I’ve never been one to fully need everything to be explained in cinema; sometimes unsolved mysteries are the best parts of movies. But Bad Times unfortunately presents an overabundance of variables that it doesn’t seem to know what to do with.