Review - 'Bad Times at the El Royale'
A handful of vastly different characters with diverse backgrounds come together at the El Royale on one fateful night.
I’m an enormous fan of Drew Goddard, particularly due to his genius horror-comedy The Cabin in the Woods that subverts horror tropes in some very clever ways. So of course I was excited for his second directorial effort Bad Times at the El Royale, that said, I had the misfortune of witnessing the spoiler-filled trailers for the film that had me wondering just how much new was left to discover. Well, good news and bad news. The film is great and their are still unexpected moments, BUT I fear I would have enjoyed the film a smidge more had I not seen the trailers. AVOID THEM AT ALL COSTS if you haven’t seen them already. Bad Times is a perfect example of a great film to just walk into with zero knowledge because every character and plot is an onion with unexpected layers that reveal themselves as you delve deeper into the story.
Despite my aggravation over the trailers, my thirst for another great Drew Goddard film was still satiated. In Bad Times, Goddard was able to tell a number of stories, all of which take place at relatively different times, and somehow intertwine them into a cohesive and engaging final product. [controverial opinion alert incoming] Basically, he does what Christopher Nolan did with Dunkirk, only in a way that makes more sense. I was amazed by just how well all of the various puzzle pieces fell into place by the end.
The writing and world-building in Bad Times at the El Royale is very strong. In less capable hands, Bad Times would have come off as preposterous, and audible groans would have followed every crazy plot twist that upends all that came before it. Thankfully, Goddard establishes Bad Times’ world as almost an alternate reality from the get-go. This doesn’t seem like the real world, it’s more of a playground rife with larger-than-life-characters, all of which have ulterior motives and surprising reveals of their true characters. Setting the film at this psychedelic and oddly vacant hotel was also a smart move because it invites the absurd. Instead of juxtaposing the ridiculous revelations in the story against a setting we can identify with, all we have is this strange location inhabited by strange characters to latch on to, thus making almost anything that happens, ridiculous or not, fair game because the rules of the outside world are left ambiguous.
That said, even though the nature of the setting is steeped in ambiguity, there are still moments that pushed my disbelief a little too far. I mean, what is the likelihood of all of these characters arriving at a strange hotel on the same night, ALL of them having ulterior motives, and ALL of whose arcs come to a poetic close by the end of the film? I know that this falls in line with the rules that were set in place from the get-go, but at times I felt it stretched even its own fantasy boundaries a little too far.
In terms of Bad Times suite of characters, most of them are well-written and their disparate personalities pop in a way that I can only define as Tarantino-esque. The dialogue and delivery is excellent across the board even though some characters aren’t quite as well-realized or interesting as others. Jeff Bridges, as always, is a standout as Donald “Doc” O’Kelly. Bridges has such a skill for inhabiting old, hard-on-their-luck journeymen characters and his portrayal of O’Kelly here is no exception. Cynthia Erivo as Darlene Sweet is another standout. She plays the one sensible character and audience surrogate that all of the other larger-than-life personalities bounce off of, which is not to say that she doesn’t have some surprises of her own. Dakota Johnson plays Emily Summerspring, and while she gets a significant part, she might be one of my least favorite characters in the film, though her backstory and her connection to other events/characters is undeniably fascinating. Jon Hamm puts on an exaggerated accent and hamms (haha?…sorry) it up as Dwight Broadbeck, and though his delivery was blustery and perhaps a little too much, he was still entertaining to watch. Finally there’s Chris Hemsworth, who has finally figured out how to do an American accent well enough to not be distracting. More importantly, he gets to play an antagonist, which for him is uncommon, and well, I’ll just say that he manages to pull it off.
Finally, the aesthetic value of Bad Times at the El Royale cannot be overlooked. This is a gorgeous-looking film with colors that burst off of the screen. I was constantly marveling at the myriad of impressive shots that cinematographer Seamus McGarvey was able to accomplish. The excellent imagery and storytelling is also complimented by a great score by Michael Giacchino and an assortment of licensed music that could not be more appropriate for the proceedings.
While Bad Times at the El Royale isn’t as refreshingly original as The Cabin in the Woods was and lacks the surprise factor due to its spoiler-laden trailers, it does have undeniable swagger, a slew of interesting characters with dark secrets and fascinating plot lines that twist, turn and eventually converge in some very satisfying ways.