You’ll either like Bad Times at the El Royale or you won’t; there’s just really no in-between when it comes to neo-noir thrillers like this. At least I don’t think so.
But, word of advice: DON’T let anyone try to explain this movie to you. That just takes all the fun out of it. This is a see-it-for-yourself kind of story.
But, just so you have some lines to color inside of:
It’s 1969 and the El Royale’s fallen on hard times. The lavish hideaway for the rich and famous straddles the California-Nevada line, but this Lake Tahoe retreat’s been abandoned by the elite. Now, the infamous playland’s essentially a no-tell-motel run by a skittish porter, and jack-of-all-trades, named Miles (Lewis Pullman) catering to whoever comes through its doors.
It’s the kind place weary drivers are relieved to find because it still looks appealing. That is until you realize Miles, and the hotel, are both a touch worn out and more than a little creepy. So, when seven people unexpectedly check-in one after the other, you just know they’re in for a bad time of it; this is a Drew Goddard film after all.
Quick Take: Bad Times at the El Royale uses this to-die-for ensemble cast to unravel a slow-burning, sharp, and at turns darkly humorous, mystery involving seven strangers with personal agendas and chaotic impulses thrown together for a single rainy night all wrapped in a stylish noir package and delivered with near-perfect pulp thriller timing.
Rating: 4 out of 5
The unequivocally amazing cinematography and score, particularly Cynthia Erivo’s singing*, do an incredible job of inserting a creeping paranoia that enlivens and/or darkens the story’s overall tone, often controls the pace, and serves as a rich backdrop for the unfolding thriller; especially as the action picks up and these strangers secrets to come to the forefront.
The story’s nonlinear structure creates opportunities for dark twists and humorous turns, as well as room to unravel the secrets lurking behind the El Royale’s glittering facade. There’s violence (but not just because ‘let’s kill things’), witty, yet (usually) purposeful dialogue, and richly detailed vignettes spotlighting each guest while simultaneously drawing each character further into the overarching storyline.
Among a slew of great performances, Cynthia Ervio’s turn as Darlene Sweet adds an element of melancholy realness to Bad Times while Chris Hemsworth charmingly sociopathic Billy Lee acts as a sign of the times (then and definitely now) with such inviting aplomb you’ll want more.
And when the two are pitted against each other it’s absolutely riveting. This dynamic is a skillfully done commentary on gender dynamics and even more subtle highlighting his ineffectual gaslighting across color lines in a way that speaks volumes into the silence that’s happening on screen.
From her first moment on screen, Darlene Sweet catches your attention; and not just because she sticks out from the rest of the guests checking in. She’s reserved but clearly not timid. She has a quiet strength that becomes more obvious as the film advances and does more to illustrate the future is always female than more bombastic performances you’ll hear about this year. She is who she is to the core and that is some high irony in this group.
But, if you’re light on historical facts for the period, you may lose the plot as this thriller often requires you to pick up what’s going on from inferences and visual cues. There are brilliant hat-tips to the 60s that enrich the story and make up the foundation of this shady oasis’s past and purpose. But they’re best appreciated if you know what the hell’s going on.
The larger storyline wasn’t as balanced as it could’ve been but, Goddard doesn’t over-play his hand too much or hide the point; he, however, does have a little too much fun with some props.
Goddard also doesn’t do much backtracking or hand-holding. If you don’t pick up on something or make a connection the first time through, you may walk away wondering what “that” was about.
These drops in pace, which could’ve been better used to integrate Miles’ backstory into the mix earlier, may cause some to lose interest before things hit an upswing. But if you lock onto Jeff Bridges’ character, you should make it through just fine. His physical impairment does a fine job of working in signposts and moments to reengage with the bigger picture. But, Goddard still wasted time.
Bad Time also needs you to connect with at least two characters to really get into not only what’s up with this hotel, but (more importantly) what’s going on with each guest and what they’re all caught up in by the end. Otherwise, you’ll just want more of your favorite character’s story, check out, and likely miss something that’ll prove important later down the line.
If there’s a sour beat in Bad Times, it’s the scenes after what should be the finale. No, I’m not going to tell you. You’ll know it when you see it. This is one of those movies that keeps going about three to five minutes past what should be its final frame.
There was a powerful scene near the end that would have worked brilliantly as the last moment before it all fades to black.
I don’t know why Goddard felt he needed to continue and bring the story “full circle.” Alright, I know why he did but it was seriously an unnecessary wrap-up. It ultimately undermines the dark edginess that worked so well for the plot and its themes.
This decision doesn’t undo my absolute enjoyment of Bad Times. But, it adds nothing other than one last chance to hear Cynthia Erivo’s unmatched voice (which could’ve happened – and had more impact – with the credits rolling).
Hollywood stopped pumping out non-linear noir-style crime thrillers in the mid-2000s and my crime story-loving heart wept. That means you can take it as read, I was very intrigued to hear Drew Goddard picked up his camera, and pen, to put his spin on the genre and I’m more than happy with the result.
Yes, I’m being cagey. The trailer for Bad Times at the El Royale is, in my opinion, a fantastical deliberate misdirect from a director seriously fond of meta-imagery and plotlines.
*Note: I’ll be buying this soundtrack as soon as its available because Ervio’s voice covering 60s standards is a must-listen, repeatedly. The soundtrack is an unequivocal 5 out of 5 all by itself.