Bad Times at the El Royale is a fantastic combination of vintage ‘90s Quentin Tarantino plotting, Coen Bros. dialogue, the style and music of an Edgar Wright film like Baby Driver, a bit of El Royale’s writer/director Drew Goddard’s Cabin in the Woods, and more than a pinch of The Hateful Eight. In other words, it’s a visual delight with fun dialogue, big twists, and violent confrontations in a small space. The film’s biggest weakness becoming how much of this film is truly original, vs how much is actually an homage to the other aforementioned filmmakers.
Tell me if you’ve heard this one before. A priest (Jeff Bridges), a singer (Cynthia Eirvo), and a vacuum salesman (Jon Hamm) walk into a hotel lobby… with a bar. Not just any hotel but the El Royale, straddling the state line between California and Nevada. The El Royale’s (Yes, I know that means I’m saying “the” twice, but it is what the characters call it in their own, charming ways) best days are behind it, though it has quite the history, with half the rooms shut down, a lost gambling permit for the Nevada side, and just one young man, Miles (Lewis Pullman), in charge of everything.
As the other characters arrive like Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson) – if that is her real name – and Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth), the mysteries already set in place begin to multiply and intersect in this bright, but claustrophobic and seemingly isolated environment where no one is safe and everyone seems to be dangerous. The question is, who has the most to hide and how far will they go to keep it hidden? Everyone has two sides, just like the two sides of the hotel; one side in California, one in Nevada.
Even if writer/director Drew Goddard did mostly rip his techniques and writing style from other fantastic, mid-budget, auteur writer/directors, he seems to know exactly what he is doing and pulls it off fairly well, with only a few hiccups. The main issue being the film could drop 20 minutes and be all the better for it. The pacing is also a little off, with the third act slowing everything way down after a frantic first two acts, which was intentional but also is a bit anticlimactic.
Now, Goddard is an auteur in his own right, so maybe this is legitimately his style, though he was heavily influenced by both Tarantino and the Coens; that much is evident. Looking at his best two projects prior to Bad Times at the El Royale, his script for The Martian and writing and directing The Cabin in the Woods, his funny dialogue in dark situations continues to shine.
Not just funny, but charming, actually. Goddard always writes interesting characters with charming dialogue. In the first proper scene in the film, when Father Daniel Flynn (Bridges) meets Darlene Sweet (Erivo) in the parking lot of the El Royale, the two politely discuss the weather in their perspective state as both stand right across the state line from one another. Follow this up with Laramie Seymour Sullivan’s (Hamm) speech in southern drawl about the hotel – featured heavily in the trailers – when all parties enter the hotel’s lobby, one in which he keeps reminding Father Flynn and Darlene that he stakes claim on the Honeymoon Suite, and baby, you got a stew going!
Of course, even these characters have that darker side, and no sooner than the crowd is dispersed to their rooms, their alternate, on-the-surface character twists are revealed, though much more will be revealed about all the characters throughout the film… if they survive long enough. The film is sort of told from each character’s point of view in a row not too unlike Reservoir Dogs or Pulp Fiction, with characters eventually bumping into each other, seeing earlier scenes from their perspectives, and forming new partnerships as the film boils to climax. Segments start with title cards like “Room #1,” followed by “Room #5,” and so on and so on, depending where each character is staying. In each segment, we do not only learn more about that character’s mystery and past, but are revealed more and more about this unique hotel that may hold more secrets than the guests.
Hemsworth’s character is perhaps the most enjoyable, yet evil and grotesque character in the film, with clever dialogue and penchant for having sex with underage girls in his very Charlie Manson type cult. This film would suffer from losing any of the main cast including Johnson, Hamm, Bridges, Nick Offerman, Cailee Spaeny, Erivo, and Pullman. A nifty script is one thing, but you need a killer cast with good direction to pull a film off that is this damn entertaining.
The entire film is confined to the El Royale, save for some flashbacks that most characters get at the beginning of their “chapter.” It is very much like a stage play, shockingly so in the opening shot of the movie, which is simply of an entire room with a camera that never moves for the entire scene, even though it keeps the character at a distance. Like Tarantino, Goddard can do a lot with a single location, also seen pretty similarly in The Cabin in the Woods.
Bad Times at the El Royale a mystery film, yes, but as I alluded to, it’s not one mystery for the character or audience to solve, but rather each character carries with them a secret, even the characters that seem less prominent at first. The film is loaded with MacGuffins to track along the way, yet most (not all) remain unanswered in the end, like an ambiguous ending to a Coen Bros film like No Country for Old Men or A Simple Man. The film will also bash you in the face with completely shocking moments that come out of a completely serene scene, as well as plenty of tension that builds up following the first few shocks of the film. Once you know the location and realize no one is safe, this is one nail-biting film watching experience!
Incredibly entertaining, but not without its faults, I recommend Bad Times at the El Royale to anyone who enjoyed the trailer, loves Tarantino, or Goddard’s past work.