Bad Times At The El Royale (2018)

25 Oct

Take a few strangers, a bag of cash, some heroin, a heavy rainstorm, a rifle or two, CIA operatives, domestic violence, PTSD, and alcohol – throw it all together with some 70’s Americana (complete with an abundance of disco soul) and you have Bad Times At El Royale. 

Written and directed by Drew Goddard (Cabin In The Woods), the film details the events bestowing a group of unfortunate strangers who happen to be at the same hotel over the course of a stormy night along the California/Nevada border. In fact, the hotel itself straddles the boundary, with half the rooms being in the “sunny and relaxing” California section and the other half in “glamourous and indulgent” Nevada – or so the marketing pitch goes – with a bright red line dividing up the property. It’s in the El Royale’s lobby where we are introduced to a trio of travelers looking for a room. There is the priest, Father Flynn (Jeff Bridges), a single woman named Darlene (Cynthia Erivo) en route to Reno, and a vacuum salesman with a southern drawl named Mr. Sullivan (Jon Hamm). After some chit-chat, the hotel clerk finally shows up in the form of a boyish young man named Miles. Things get complicated as secrets are revealed, and a few surprise guests arrive at the hotel throughout the course of the night.

Bad Times is the kind of film that invests itself heavily in plot. It’s the sort of grounded, single-location storytelling that you see with movies that also work well as theatrical pieces like Wait Until Dark, 12 Angry Men, or August: Osage County. With a film like this, having a character-driven narrative is absolutely essential – especially so when the thing is over 2 hours. Unfortunately, Bad Times collapses under its own weight about halfway through and doesn’t have enough dramatic prowess to justify its lengthy runtime. Goddard is a much better director than he is writer; most of the characters in Bad Times feel stale and onenote. He gets away with it just fine in Cabin In The Woods, a horror venture co-written with Joss Whedon, where the leads are intentionally variations on common genre tropes. Here, Goddard tries to substitute unnecessary flashbacks as a proxy for fleshing out complex character motivations. What he fails to realize is that providing already-thin characters with their own backstory only reinforces their one-dimensional traits.

While I appreciated the overall narrative beats that makeup Bad Times, the characters’ behavior simply does not make enough sense to propel the script along like they need to. The best (worst?) example of this is with Billy (played by Chris Hemsworth), who is the biggest fruitcake-of-a-bad-guy to come along since Jared Leto’s Joker in Suicide Squad. Hemsworth chews up every line with a portraly that veers on the edge of camp but whose role is essential enough in the story so that Goddard demands we take him seriously (one can’t help but wonder if this character’s most effective contribution here is the image of a shirtless Hemsworth to use in the film’s marketing).

There is a lot to admire with Bad Times – a lot more than there is to dislike. I particularly dug the noir-infused tone and beautiful interior set design. The post-modern story structure (complete with title cards!) is an admirable but obvious attempt to try and emulate Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, a film which Bad Times owes a lot to. But unlike that film, (Tarantino is a master at understanding the brevity of writing nuanced, complex characters) Goddard’s work trails off around the third act right when the script should be picking up steam. In retrospect, I liked the film’s first act the best simply because I knew the least about all the players at the hotel and appreciated the intrigue. Most of the second half becomes a prime example of style-over-substance and some parts of Bad Royale end up feeling like a music video that goes on for way too long.

Still though, the film showcases Goddard’s skill as a director who can effectively use the slow-burn to ramp up tension. There are enough clever stylistic choices in the film to keep most viewers happy – including some surprising plot elements that caught me off guard in a give-you-goosebumps kind of way. Bad Times At The El Royale is good. So frustratingly good that its biggest sin might be in exposing the possibility of how much better it could have been.

Bottom Line: Bad Times At The El Royale is a nifty piece of dramaturgical theatre that unfortunately relies too often on underwritten characters as its crutch. 

Rating: 6.5/10 

Film Recipe: The Hateful Eight + Identity + Wait Until Dark + Suburbicon 

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