REVIEW: Having a good time with "Bad Times at the El Royale"
Disclaimer: “Bad Times at the El Royale” is an R-rated film. It features strong violence and language, some drug content, and an incredibly brief instance of nudity.
A Priest, a Singer, a Hippie and a Vacuum Salesman Walk into a Hotel Lobby
When four strangers arrive at the mysterious split California/Nevada hotel the El Royale, each under suspicious circumstances, mysteries abound. Nothing is quite as it seems at the El Royale, and nothing is certain as twists and turns come with every new revelation.
“Bad Times at the El Royale” is an old-fashioned mystery-thriller with modern flare and is the type of movie you should go into as blind as possible, so aside from the set-up I will avoid even mentioning any plot points to preserve the many curiosities the film has to offer.
Good Times at the El Royale
“Bad Times at the El Royale” feels like an inappropriate title based on how good of a time I had watching it. Writer/director Drew Goddard (“The Cabin in the Woods”) delivers a fun and engaging mystery that takes full advantage of its excellent cast and oozes with style and charm.
Goddard has crafted a thought-out mystery where everything is necessary, despite its fairly lengthy 141-minute runtime. He piles layers upon layers of mystery. Each and every character has some sort of secret. Their secrets have secrets. Even the hotel itself has secrets. And it never takes that extra step too far. It successfully maintains at least one point of intrigue at any given moment throughout the duration of the film, keeping you engaged from the second you arrive at the El Royale to long after you leave.
In a movie like this, it all starts and ends with the cast. Each individual character is intriguing and layered and only becomes more so the more we learn about them. The primary cast is made up of Jeff Bridges, Jon Hamm, Dakota Johnson, Cynthia Erivo, Lewis Pullman, Cailee Spaeny and Chris Hemsworth.
Bridges is the most muted he’s been in a long while, as a priest searching for something he has lost. It’s easy to forget how good he is when he’s wearing a cowboy hat and talking in a garbled accent. Fortunately, this role gives him something more to chew on, as well as some genuinely affecting moments.
Jon Hamm has cranked the charisma up to 11 as a traveling vacuum salesman who just wants to stay in the honeymoon suite.
Having only really seen Dakota Johnson in Fifty Shades trailers, I was pleasantly surprised by her turn here as an abrasive and secretive young woman who is clearly trying to get away from something.
Cynthia Erivo is a standout as a singer struggling to make her way, both as a musician and as a black woman in the late ’60s. The movie devotes a solid amount of time to her voice, and I’m only sad it didn’t devote even more. The dynamic between her and Bridges is perhaps my favorite part of the entire film.
Another standout is Lewis Pullman as the young hotel worker who’s running the El Royale solo during the off-season and who desperately seeks repentance for his sins.
It’s good to see Cailee Spaeny in something again, as she was the one promising thing to come out of the wet sock of a movie that is “Pacific Rim: Uprising.”
And then there’s Chris Hemsworth and his lack of shirt as the mysterious Californian wildcard Bill Lee. Always a welcome presence.
Roll of the Dice
One of the best qualities that defines “Bad Times” is how it feels like anything could happen. It’s so rare to find a film that genuinely surprises you, let alone does it many times over.
“Bad Times” does this in part through its clever use of narrative structure. The film will play a scene from one perspective and then end the scene on an intriguing note that leads into a new scene from another perspective. Each new scene simultaneously gives context to past events and reveals new information, like a never-ending magician's handkerchief of revelations and twists.
But it doesn’t feel cheap. It never feels like it cheats the audience; it just feels like it’s taking you for a ride. A fun ride that you want to be on.
The only downside to the whole “anything goes” mentality is that there are a couple of plot lines that end abruptly, and unfortunately the movie never feels the need to tie them back in to the greater picture, which is a little unsatisfying, but hardly unforgivable.
“Bad Times at the El Royale” is an unquestionably good time. Its old-school vibe and dynamic performances are matched by a deviously well-constructed mystery which continually surprises and never settles on anything less than a wickedly fun ride.
Given the sheer range of events, it’s hard to be completely content in all aspects of the film's many turns, but "Bad Times" doesn’t shy away from an unfair or unsatisfying conclusion. I'm a fan of a solid mystery movie, and this one definitely delivers.
Rated R for strong violence, language, some drug content and brief nudity
Runtime: 2hr 21min