Has the El Royale seen anything but bad times? We hope the answer is no. Otherwise, what’s the damn point of a film. Last seen receiving acclaim for the slightly overrated ‘The Martian’, writer-director Drew Goddard is now overseeing a thriller that is way more ambitious than it needs to be.
Set around the junction to the ’70s, ‘Bad Times at the El Royale’ presents that “strangers meet in an ominous hotel” canvas. The more recent ‘Hotel Artemis’ readily comes to mind as a film in this mould. Checking in is a priest with a dark past named Father Flynn (Jeff Bridges), a brash salesman named Laramie (Jon Hamm), a resilient singer named Darlene (Cynthia Erivo) and a young woman played by Dakota Johnson, who signs the hotel register with an expletive.
On the surface, these people hardly count as the most alarming hotel patrons. But the film’s opening, ten years earlier, assures us that seeds have been sown for some chaos. In a sweet sequence, composed of a firm wide angle and a number of jump cuts, an unnamed man in a trenchcoat (Nick Offerman) enters one of the hotel rooms with a bag. He moves all the furniture, peels back the carpet, removes a couple of floorboards and hides the bag. His instincts are great because after he covers up everything, another man shows up and blasts him to the afterlife with a shotgun.
In the present day, we know whatever is in that duffel bag is still under the floor. It’s likely that one of the patrons we meet is in the very hotel room that tasted blood a decade earlier.
‘Bad Times at the El Royale’ is very plot-heavy, laden with flashbacks, narrative loops and time jumps. To pick at other story details is to enter spoiler territory. I presume even the marketing was a misdirect because Chris Hemsworth and his abs looked like they would be the foundation of this film. That is not the case. It’s a strong ensemble piece with a lot of character twists and dialogue laced with vibrant wit and dark humor.
The one character I can shed some more light on is the El Royale. This hospitality establishment is dissected by the border of the US states of Nevada and California. The hotel rooms on either side of the border are styled and priced differently. The Nevada side has a casino, naturally, which was the draw of glitterati far and wide. But the hotel lost its license and the hype and glamour soon followed.
Goddard is doing something interesting here. He angles the El Royale as the meeting point of varying forms of American depravity. We see a stubborn Richard Nixon talking about US’ involvement in the Vietnam War. A layer about PTSD and drug addiction rears its head. We spend some time in the music industry and its exploitation vibes, courtesy of Erivo’s Darlene. There is this weird Catholicism angst, hippie cults and bubbling beneath everything are incredibly sadistic crimes and vices by people we would like to think are unlikely perpetrators.
His ideas aren’t as clever or sustaining as he thinks. By the time we near the conclusion and characters have run their course , there is a fair idea of the variables that will push us to the to the final standoff, which turns out to be limp, saggy and wanting for suspense. This film is almost the antithesis to 2017’s ‘Free Fire’, which boasted minimal chaff but willing mayhem. If you’re like me, wanting nothing more than for the powder keg to explode with aplomb, watching Chris Hemsworth give his best impression of a belly dancer will leave your eyes in the back of your head.
It’s apt to say ‘Bad Times at the El Royale’ is likely to elicit mixed feelings. Goddard is guilty of overindulging and overstuffing his story. But this is not the film you see in theatres every day, especially in Ghana. That comes with its own special satisfaction. Goddard is absolutely in love with the rich characters he has crafted – to a fault; even down to the hapless hotelier-cum-ultimate utility man (Lewis Pullman).
Performance-wise, it’s a great showcase for the vibrant Erivo (who actually does a ton of singing) and an appetizer for Steve McQueen’s ‘Widows’. She’s the one we turn to when grasping for some earnestness, along with Bridges’ visibly jittery priest.
Other pluses are Goddard’s visual style. I found his pulp-noir garnishes appealing and surprisingly cohesive with the deliberate patient stagey feel. He opts for title cards that divide the film into chapters a la a certain Quentin Tarantino. Aside from the structural influences, there is even an extremely valuable roll of celluloid that serves as an intriguing MacGuffin and I look forward to the internet rabbit holes that discuss what exactly was on that film reel.
‘Bad Times at the El Royale’ would be very at home in the ‘90s. It’s not hard to see Brad Pitt in the Hemsworth role. Pam Grier suffices in Erivo’s pumps, I guess. Goddard is certainly as in love in her as Tarantino was with Grier in ‘Jackie Brown’.
But as to what would have made this film truly great, we need not look further than Goddard’s own ‘Cabin in the Woods’. Sacrificing character for pastiche would have made this the memorable ride it deserved to be.