REVIEW: Bad Times at the El Royale (2018)

Theatrical Release Poster – 20th Century Fox

The following is a review of Bad Times at the El Royale — Directed by Drew Goddard.

There are some films that you can only recommend with a very specific caveat — that the movie felt as if it had been designed and made for you. This feeling can happen all the time, and when this happens I almost always find myself saying that “I absolutely loved it,” and then I limit my statement with a “but.” In the case of Bad Times at the El Royale, that sentence would probably look something like this: “I absolutely loved it, but there is a very real chance that its length and pace will annoy the hell out of you.” 

Bad Times at the El Royale is Oscar-nominated writer Drew Goddard’s second directorial feature film — with the brilliant 2012 horror-comedy The Cabin in the Woods being his directorial debut — and it is yet another location-focused film that features characters secretly watching someone do their business in the comfort of their own room.

The film begins in 1959 when a criminal checks-in to the El Royale hotel, which is located right on the border between California and Nevada (and split down the middle with each side of the hotel representing a state), to hide something beneath the floorboards of one of its hotel rooms.

The film then jumps forward ten years to the end of the sixties, when four new guests arrive at the hotel: ‘Laramie Sullivan’ (played by Jon Hamm), an FBI agent masquerading as a southern salesman; Darlene Sweet (played by Cynthia Erivo), a struggling singer who is on her way to a show; ‘Father Flynn’ (played by Jeff Bridges), a mysterious man with a spotty memory who is pretending to be a priest; and, finally, Emily Summerspring (played by Dakota Johnson), a mysterious and sarcastic woman who needs her privacy.

There to greet them is Miles Miller (played by Lewis Pullman), the only employee left at the El Royale, who immediately warns Father Flynn that the hotel is no place for a priest. Miles is right, but not for the reasons he may have expected — because Billy Lee (played by Chris Hemsworth), a cult leader, is out looking for a specific disciple of his.

“Shit happens. Get the whiskey.”

The film is split into chapters using six or seven title cards that set-up backstories of varying depth for the various characters. Many of these chapters end in thrilling cliffhangers, one of which, when I saw it, had audience members jumping out of their seats, and, towards the end of the film, I even thought the timing of a backstory chapter, albeit a short one, was comical.

I thought Goddard handled the ambitious puzzle piece structure of the film very well, and, as I’ll mention with Jeff Bridges’ character later in the review, Goddard successfully managed to make these clearly mysterious and deceitful characters into characters the audience would have compassion for, which is to say that I thought it was an impressive and successful ensemble film. I thought he imbued the hotel with a lot of mystery that made the location feel like an actual character. It also felt very lived-in.

Drew Goddard is, by no means, a no-name filmmaker in the film community, but he isn’t someone the vast majority of moviegoers have heard of before. But Bad Times at the El Royale is the kind of film that would have gotten a much louder public reception if someone like Quentin Tarantino had made it, and it, indeed, feels like the end product of a scenario in which Tarantino was hired to adapt an Agatha Christie novel. It also feels like a soon-to-be cult favorite. You can all get in line behind me because I loved this movie.

Now, let me first get the minor issues that I had with the film out of the way. The structure of the film can certainly make the film feel rather slow, and, though I didn’t have this next problem, I am sure some people will feel that the structure of the film can be a little bit repetitive. The biggest problem that the film has is that it definitely is too long, even though I think the structure of the film does ask for a long runtime.

But if those issues don’t bother you all that much, then I think there is a good chance you will be thrilled by the gorgeous cinematography full of vibrant colors and reflecting neon lights, the many engaging characters, the great performances, the symbolism, and, finally, the toe-tappingly catchy soundtrack.

The most spellbinding aspect of this film is the beating heart of the picture, Darlene Sweet played by Cynthia Erivo, who literally stops characters in their tracks with her glorious soulful voice. Many moviegoers will watch this movie and think they have discovered a new star — because, make no mistake, this is a star-making performance — not knowing that even though it is her big-screen debut, Erivo is an Oscar away from being an EGOT (a winner of Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony awards).

Erivo even has one of the most powerful lines of dialogue I’ve seen delivered in a film this year, with which she stuns Chris Hemsworth who is trying to control a critical situation in the third act. Hemsworth is exactly what you see briefly in the trailers — a bare-chested cult leader oozing with swagger. Hemsworth must’ve had so much fun with this character, who is a nice change of pace from his ‘day job’ with Disney and Marvel.

I also think Jon Hamm had a great time during the shooting of this movie. For his first scenes, he gets to sport a baffling but hilarious southern accent while he insists that he should get to stay in the honeymoon suite, and then he later gets to be the star of a long and fascinating sequence in which he discovers a hidden corridor. I do wish we would’ve gotten to see more of both Hamm and Johnson’s characters, but I was pleasantly surprised by what we got from Lewis Pullman. Really, the entire cast is very good, even though they don’t all get as much time on-screen as you may have wanted for them.

I want to mention that I was also very impressed by Jeff Bridges. I was particularly captivated by multiple scenes wherein his dishonest character discloses private information. Bridges’ character is trying to hide who he really is, but, eventually, he realizes that the state of his memory is so bad that he has forgotten his own name — he literally doesn’t know who he is anymore. Bridges battles with these deep issues for his character in some fairly emotionally effective scenes. I was particularly moved by his scenes with Erivo.

Bad Times at the El Royale is a terrible name for a movie, and, although I’m sure those that dislike the film will say that the title’s adjective is telling about the experience of watching the film, I, honestly, thought this was one of the greatest moviegoing experiences I’ve had this year thus far. Drew Goddard’s Bad Times at the El Royale is a wonderfully stylish ensemble thriller and exactly the kind of original studio product that the film community should champion in this superhero-dominated era of American cinema.

9 out of 10

– Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.

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