Bad Times At The El Royale
Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo, Jon Hamm, Dakota Johnson, Chris Hemsworth, Cailee Spaeny, Lewis Pullman
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The performances are superb, the direction sublime, and the soundtrack to kill for.
There was a period of time in the early to mid-1990s when films favoured a loose, shaggy approach to story. Best exemplified by Robert Altman’s Short Cuts (1993) and Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994), these films tended to feature multiple POV characters, lengthy sections of screen time devoted to chatting, and regular subversion of linear time. Watching Bad Times At The El Royale feels a bit like a brief time warp back to those halcyon days, although your enjoyment will depend on how much you dig those sort of flicks.
Set primarily in a single location, Bad Times At The El Royale tells the tale of a group of strangers who, for various reasons, all find themselves at the El Royale Hotel for the evening. There’s Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges), singer Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo), vacuum cleaner salesman Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm) and mysterious-but-sexy hippie Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson). Naturally in this sort of movie no one is what they seem, and over the course of an amiable two hours and change, we are treated to hidden agendas, uneasy alliances, and multiple plot twists.
As is customary in films that juggle large ensemble casts, some characters go on more interesting journeys than others. Jeff Bridges and Cynthia Erivo both have strong stories, and Jon Hamm is wonderful as the salesman with a secret. Less successful is Dakota Johnson’s tale, which is a pity because she plays the role well but is let down by a story arc that relies a little too heavily on convenience, and a third act twist that diffuses the skillfully built tension.
Director Drew Goddard’s last film was the excellent meta horror Cabin In The Woods, and while the script for Bad Times At The El Royale isn’t quite as tight, his direction has gained confidence and style. Every frame drips with atmosphere and keeps the viewer engaged, whether it’s showcasing Jon Hamm walking through the pouring rain or Chris Hemsworth’s alarmingly chiseled bare chest. It’s a bit of a pity that the script falters in the final third, because the previous two thirds are uniformly wonderful.
Still, unlike grunge music, flannelette shirts and ubiquitous heroin usage, Bad Times At The El Royale proves to be an artifact of the 90s worth revisiting. The performances are superb, the direction sublime, and the soundtrack to kill for. It doesn’t quite stick the landing, but offers a wild and wooly genre-straddling adventure along the way, and in films like this, it’s often the journey not the destination that counts.