TL;DR – A really strong ensemble piece that works like a puzzle getting reveal one piece at a time, which you will enjoy depending on how long you are willing to let the premise of the film take its time to get going.
Score – 4 out of 5 stars
Post-Credit Scene – There is no post-credit scene
I am always a sucker for a good ensemble film, where you have a group of actors working together to make a better whole of a film. Indeed having a look at my Top 10 Films of All Time (see here) all of them fall on the spectrum of being ensemble films. However, Bad Times at the El Royale is not just an ensemble film, it is also a puzzle where we get to see parts of the story revealed one at a time, and they are all trapped there as a storm rolls in, and there are different motivations and, well I think you know that this is a film for me. However, it might not be a film for everyone, with that in mind let’s dive into the world of the late 1960s and one fateful night.
So to set the scene, we open in 1959 as a man in silhouette (Nick Offerman) clearly in some distress enters a room at the El Royale, a unique hotel because it straddles the boundary of California and Nevada so you can have booze in California, and slot machines in Nevada. Then the man pulls the room apart lifts up the floorboards and hides a case underneath. Which was good timing because the almost he has put everything back together he is murdered where he stood. Flash forward ten years and the hotel had seen better days, instead of being the cultural landmark it has become almost a relic with barely any staff and rooms ready. Which makes it a great choice for a priest Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges) on his way home from visiting family, Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo) a lounge singer working a gig in Reno, and Seymour ‘Laramie’ Sullivan (Jon Hamm) a vacuum salesman that is looking to get a taste of the hotel’s past. Well after waiting forever to wake up Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman) the concierge and sole employee left at the El Royale they and Emily (Dakota Johnson) a lady that does not want to be recorded as being there, go back to their rooms and we out find that nothing is what it seems. Now because of the nature of Bad Times at the El Royale, I can’t really talk about it without getting into immediate spoilers so with that in mind this is going to be a [SPOILER] review so if you have not seen the film yet please be warned.
Because this is a long film, you need to be pulled through it or it would be very easy to lose interest, and for me, Drew Goddard achieves this through both the characters and the puzzle. This film is all filled with some truly wonderful performances, like Jeff Bridges as the priest (sort of) who is having real issues with his memory, grasping at things he should know but are not there, like his real name. Or Jon Hamm that is this bright and chipper salesman, hitting every stereotype for that role, and trying to sell his wares to everyone he talks to, but it is all a front for who he really is. Like if you flipped a switch between two different people. Or Cynthia Erivo who is playing Darlene, someone who is trying to make it in a world where people are either racist or want her to exploit herself for them, but she stands firm in the face of it all, who picked the wrong hotel to stay in that one night. Also for many, I am sure the picture of a gyrating shirtless Chris Hemsworth will be worth the price of admission alone.
Now, it is the performances that interest you but it is that puzzle that you will want to see how it works out. Why does Emily have a young girl Rose (Cailee Spaeny) tied up in her room, why is the good reverend digging up his floorboards, why is Sullivan looking for listing devices, and what is behind that mirror. Now look, I get that for many people this film was too long, and I understand that, but personally I wanted to see this puzzle through, and also at every point where I started to lose interest was the moment that film would immediately shift things up. For me, the one great things of this drip feed of information is how it shifts the way you look at certain characters, and a great example of that is Miles. When we first meet him he presents as sort of the last man standing spending his time sleeping rather than doing his job, then we find that he is an addict, so he wasn’t sleeping he was off being high, then you find the tunnels and he becomes not an addict but some kind of creep. Now is he a creep or is he just paid to be a creep, then is he a murder, wait is he a serial killer, oh and then the final reveal. Now all of this would not work unless the story is compelling and the acting was not there to support it.
This is also a film that revels in the time period, with a lot of small touches in both the set design and costumes. I also really liked how some of the scenes were framed, that opening sequence felt almost like I was watching more of a play than a film, and there are little hints of that throughout that I found intriguing. While I think most of the story worked, the stuff around the cult and Rose did feel like the weak link even though they are the main drivers of the third act. Also, there is a whole murdered couple sub-plot that isn’t really explained as well as it needs to be, and I would be interested to know who people assume is on that tape.
In the end, do we recommend Bad Times at the El Royale? Yes, yes I do, but with one caveat. This is a film that very much plays to things I personally find really engaging but I know is not everybody’s cup of tea, and I could completely understand why you could walk out of El Royale being board rather than intrigued like I was.
By Brian MacNamara: You can follow Brian on Twitter Here, when he’s not chatting about Movies and TV, he’ll be talking about International Relations, or the Solar System.
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Credits – All images were created by the cast, crew, and production companies of Bad Times at the El Royale
Directed by – Drew Goddard
Written by – Drew Goddard
Music by – Michael Giacchino
Cinematography by – Seamus McGarvey
Edited by – Lisa Lassek
Starring – Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo, Dakota Johnson, Jon Hamm, Cailee Spaeny, Lewis Pullman & Chris Hemsworth with Nick Offerman, Xavier Dolan, Shea Whigham, Mark O’Brien, Charles Halford, Jim O’Heir & Manny Jacinto
Rating – Australia: MA15+; Canada: 14A; Germany: 16; New Zealand: R; United Kingdom: 15; United States: R