Drew Goddard is one of the brightest film writers of our time. In addition to contributions to awesome television shows like “Alias”, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and my personal favorites “LOST” and “Daredevil” he’s also become well known for his contributions to film. He wrote “Cloverfield” and World War Z” and the screenplay for “The Martian”, a film that garnered him widespread acclaim in the industry. His one directorial effort was “The Cabin in the Woods”, a stylish genre subverting horror flick that, again, is one of my personal favorites. So when I heard he was returning to the director’s chair and also writing a new film called “Bad Times at the El Royale” I was instantly hooked, even though it took me longer than I would like to actually see the film. Now I have and I’m ready to have my take on it. To be honest right off the bat it’s a criminally underappreciated work. How underappreciated? Well let’s dive in. This is my review of “Bad Times at the El Royale”.
WHAT’S IT ABOUT
“Bad Times at the El Royale” follows seven strangers at a hotel placed squarely on the California-Navada border with half of the facility in one state and the other half in the other. The hotel is operated by the drug addicted concierge Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman) and owned by shady unknown individuals. The hotel’s guests include Dwight Broadbeck (Jon Hamm), struggling singer Darlene (Cynthia Eviro), an aging and mysterious priest named Father Flynn (Jeff Bridges), and Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson) who has kidnapped her own younger sister Rose (Cailee Spaeny) from a cult with hopes of starting a new life. Circumstances cause their individual stories to intertwine and their pasts to catch up with them. Meanwhile it is revealed that the hotel is built to spy on its residents and has been used to collect blackmail material for years. As each character’s individual stories begin to come to light things get out of control and reach a tipping point with the cult leader Emily and Rose have escaped, named Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth), arrives threatening the lives of all of the guests at the El Royale.
“Bad Times at the El Royale” was for me a very engaging film mostly because I enjoy a movie that delves into its characters as well as the story. I feel like this project finds a good balance between both, showcasing the background of almost every character while also giving us a fun and engaging narrative that we see from multiple perspectives. Many times the film cuts from the action to show us who these people were before their visit to the El Royale, allowing us to invest in their fates and understand their motivations. The flashbacks are (for the most part) placed well throughout the project so that we’ve had time to question these people before we’re given some neat “ah ha” moments as the pieces come together. It’s an awesome example of character development at its best, but it doesn’t stop there. “Bad Times” is not against throwing surprises at you either. Not a lot of people survive this picture and some of them might die off faster than you think giving it a sense of realism and chaos. I won’t say it’s a relentless film, but it does take some chances that I couldn’t help but appreciate.
No surprise this is an incredibly well written movie. While we’ve seen the results of Drew Goddard’s writing and direction in the past this is the first time we see them both at the same time and with that in mind “Bad Times” does feel like a work of passion and art. The story and presentation are meticulously detailed, almost to the point of pretentiousness but not quite, and the social subtext is delightfully well built into the story tackling themes of redemption, the consequences of choice and free will, and my favorite message that involves the true definitions of right and wrong and good and evil. Every character’s story fits the mold of one of these moral conundrums but none of them feel repetitive. Every one of the individual character stories feels inspired and unique almost as if Goddard’s goal was to relay how many different ways you can tell the same kind of story without repeating yourself. For all the major names in this film and the many different story threads worked into the screenplay “Bad Times at the El Royale” builds everything up effectively, works in reveals seamlessly and concludes these stories mostly flawlessly becoming both a spectacular mystery thriller and an awesome character study.
That said a movie like this wouldn’t stand out if it weren’t for a capable cast. Big names like Jeff Bridges, Jon Hamm, Chris Hemsworth and Dakota Johnson along with rising stars Cailee Spaeny and Lewis Pullman as well as stage actress and singer Cynthia Erivo in her big screen debut (she will also appear in this year’s “Widows”) all give us memorable characters that, thanks to the narrative style, are well defined and stand out in a crowded cast. Everyone feels like they are giving heir A-game here working off of each other well despite the fact that their characters are all strangers. Also considering that many of these scenes were probably shot and re-shot in order to achieve the style (showing the same scene from different perspectives) it’s impressive how consistent everyone is. I was looking desperately for errors in consistency and while I found a few plot holes in the overall story the use of the same scene from a different perspective always felt consistent and on point with how it was presented previously. Either every actor was able to mimic specific scenes flawlessly in different takes or Drew Goddard filmed from different angles at the same time which still makes these performances impressive as they had to be able to perform to several different cameras at the same time. Simply put the performances in this movie are fantastic and kept me interested. It’s the little details and dedication of the actors that truly help “Bad Times” become a complete and entertaining viewing experience.
WHAT DIDN’T WORK
The biggest criticism I’ve heard from a lot of people in regards to “Bad Times at the El Royale” is that it’s too long and the pace is off. Both are pretty credible criticisms although only one really proved to be a problem for me. I actually believe “Bad Times” was pretty well paced, building the tension of the story and each character’s background while never losing touch with the main narrative thread. But I will admit it takes a long time to get to the point and at times can feel like a drag as a result. Even though I enjoyed this time I can’t help but label it as a bit tedious, focusing so much on the backstories of characters that it can sometimes take you out of the action. There’s definitely some fat that could have been cut off the film that could have made “Bad Times” a much less irritating experience for those who aren’t as fascinated by character arcs and buildup. It didn’t spoil the film for me but I’d be lying if there weren’t a few times where I just wanted to movie to get on with it and at least one time I felt the cutaway to a character’s back story ruined the moment for me by taking me out of the drama. Regardless it in no way makes “Bad Times” a bad watch, it just makes it a bit of a chore at times to get through depending on what you’re expecting going in. But I will say the wait is worth the result.
My only other real complaint about the film is that the gimmick of the hotel being used to spy on the residents never really goes anywhere and actually opens more plot holes than anything else at times. For example, it’s used in a neat moment of suspense where Cynthia Eviro’s Darlene uses her singing to cover up the actions of Jeff Bridges Dock, but they’re doing it to avoid suspicions from someone on the other side of the two way mirror who would have seen both of them enter the room in the first place if they were there and there’s no way of the two knowing anyone is on the other side of the glass to begin with. I know it’s nitpicky but the rest of this film is so well written that moments like this stand out like a sore thumb. The bottom line though is I DID have to go looking for these errors and many were only realized in hindsight which means that “Bad Times” is more than good enough to gloss over these inconsistencies to still be a neat and well written story. When you have to specifically look for problems in a movie because it’s borderline perfect on the surface that’s all you can really hope for especially with a story structure as complicated and detailed as the one we get from “Bad Times at the El Royale”.
I really enjoyed this movie. I expected to enjoy it but I didn’t think I’d enjoy it THIS much. Is it tedious and drawn out? Yes, but this doesn’t hurt the overall quality as much as you might expect. It takes its time building tension and characters but with great acting and writing to support this approach the film as a whole feels like a cohesive and fun collection of different narratives all rolled into one great story that ties them all together. It’s not the first time we’ve experienced a movie like this but even then “Bad Times at the El Royale” feels unique and fresh. It might not keep you guessing all the way through the way many probably thought it would, but the suspense is there, the action and dialogue is well paced, at least in my opinion, and the social subtext is perfectly built into the story to avoid being heavy handed while still getting the point across. In the end “Bad Times” is a fun movie experience from an awesome writer and capable director who had a vision and brought it to fully realized life with precision, style and near perfection.