Bad Times at the El Royale (United States, 2018)

October 12, 2018
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Bad Times at the El Royale Poster

There was a time back in the 1990s when everyone wanted to be Tarantino. As we learned at the time, however, there’s only one Tarantino and all the attempts to mimic his style and approach felt like third generation VHS dubs. Now, some 25 years post-Pulp Fiction, along comes Drew Goddard (The Cabin in the Woods) with a quirky cast Tarantino would appreciate and the kind of story he might be able to do something with. Unfortunately, like most non-Tarantino Tarantino wannabes, Bad Times at the El Royale doesn’t quite make the cut. Despite its share of shock moments and stingers, it doesn’t all add up and the finale is a letdown. The level of cleverness drops off dramatically when it should peak and the sudden change in tone (from dark comedy to straightforward brutality) is unwelcome. Bad Times at the El Royale has problems beyond its inability to stick the ending but that’s the one that ultimately sinks it.

The cast has a something-for-everyone feel and includes the ageless Jeff Bridges, the oh-so-cool Jon Hamm, the sexy Dakota Johnson, and the equally sexy Chris Hemsworth (shirtless quite often, I might add). A few of the actors are cast against type but it would constitute a spoiler to reveal which ones. Of the lesser-known players, the standout is Tony winner Cynthia Erivo, whose voice (belting out ‘60s songs like “Hold On, I’m Comin'” and “You Can’t Hurry Love”) is the defining trait of her character. The barely known Lewis Pullman and even lesser known Cailee Spaeny also have roles.

The movie’s timeline is a little uncertain but clues point to the early 1970s. That means a prologue involving a man hiding a bad under the floorboards of his hotel room transpires shortly after 1960. The titular hotel, which is built on the border between Nevada and California (so that you have a choice of staying either “in Nevada” or “in California,” although the latter costs $1 more per night), is modeled after the real-life Cal Neva Resort & Casino, which was owned by Frank Sinatra during the 1960s. The once-popular El Royale has fallen on hard times since the revocation of its gambling license, so the arrival of four customers in one evening must seem like a bonanza to Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman), the only employee on-site.

The four guests are a diverse group. There’s the taciturn Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges), who we immediately suspect might not really be a man of the cloth. Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo) needs a cheap place to stay while working as a lounge singer in Reno. Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm) is a vacuum cleaner salesman – or at least that’s what he purports to be. And unfriendly Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson) is up to no good with a tied-up and seemingly kidnapped girl (Cailee Spaeny) in tow.

The screenplay is written with a tongue-in-cheek dark sense of humor and enjoys throwing unexpected curves at the audience. This works for a while until Goddard goes to the well once too often. Then, what starts out as stylish fun wears thin. The ending is especially disappointing – it’s sadly routine for a movie that delights in defying convention. During the final fifteen minutes, I kept waiting for one final shock but there isn’t one. Bad Times at the El Royale also loses its sense of humor along the way. I’d peg that point around the 2/3 mark when Chris Hemsworth emerges from flashbacks to show up in the flesh.

The movie has an awkward structure that uses chapter titles to provide us with story snippets of how each of the characters ended up at the El Royale (as well a tying in the prologue). One key moment is shown from three different perspectives but Goddard isn’t doing a Rashomon. This is more in the nature of a recursive plot device, showing the event then taking a step backward to fill in what’s happening on the periphery.

Bad Times at the El Royale starts with a lot of promise and a full head of steam; even half-way through I was engaged. But the movie eventually careens off the track. It’s oddly reminiscent (in style and approach if not in narrative) to Martin McDonagh’s 2012 misfire, Seven Psychopaths. If one was to extend the comparison, there might be something good to look forward to. McDonagh, after all, followed up Seven Psychopaths with Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. What better hope for Goddard’s future could one desire? As for the present, while “bad times” might be unnecessarily downbeat and cruel, it’s not entirely inappropriate.

Bad Times at the El Royale (United States, 2018)

Director: Drew Goddard
Cast: Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo, Dakota Johnson, Jon Hamm, Chris Hemsworth, Cailee Spaeny, Lewis Pullman
Home Release Date: 2019-01-01
Screenplay: Drew Goddard
Cinematography: Seamus McGarvey
Music: Michael Giacchino
U.S. Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Run Time: 2:20
U.S. Release Date: 2018-10-12
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity)
Genre: Thriller/Comedy
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1