Trapping a bunch of diverse strangers in a shady motel in 1969 sounds like the perfect set-up for a great thriller. But, despite the endless character revelations, point-of-view shifts and obvious passion on display, this film turns out to be excessive, and less interesting than it thinks it is. I was extremely excited for this release as a fan of Goddard’s first film The Cabin in the Woods, but for all its twists, unexpectedness and shifting alliances, it didn’t deliver the really satisfying experience I was gearing up for.
The El Royale is a motel on the California-Nevada state line, which has a mysterious aura surrounding it. What was once a favourite meeting place for celebrities, the establishment lost its gambling license and its business slowed down to almost nothing, becoming a hangout for only the strangest of characters. It ’s run by just one employee—a nervous young man named Miles (Lewis Pullman), who handles everything from the front desk to bartending and housekeeping. On one night, four customers show up to the El Royale: elderly priest Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges), singer Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo), cocky vacuum cleaner salesman Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm), and moody criminal Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson). With everyone nursing a secret of their own, identities will be uncovered, and we don’t know who’s got their own agenda or who’s going to make it out alive.
The El Royale has a thick red line painted right down the middle of the parking lot and the lobby, showing the border between California and Nevada. What this strip really represents is the good and bad of each character. Are these people good, bad, or a bit of both? It’s an interesting idea in a film which deals with themes of redemption and forgiveness. It begs the question of whether being forgiven for our past sins makes us a good person, or whether we’ll have to forever live with these sins—take them to the grave. Goddard’s screenplay isn’t asking you to like these people, it’s far more interesting in teasing out the secrets of their identities, which aren’t as interesting as what I had hoped.
In a film filled with stars, it’s the setting which really earns top-billing. The El Royale is enhanced by Martin Whist’s fantastic production design which has rustic old-school Americana iconography and an aesthetically pleasing blend of wood and stone—yet, something just feels a little off. There’s a sense of griminess which doesn’t feel quite right, just like our characters.
What Goddard does very well from the opening scene shows his confidence with the camera, delivering an opening which shows a passage of time from the perspective of one static shot. Goddard isn’t afraid to let the camera linger on his subjects. Along with cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, they deliver a neon-drenched visual palette which isn’t afraid to be eerie and sinister, perfectly matching our characters’ intentions. Unfortunately, this film’s visual prowess can’t make up for its lack of narrative substance.
I was completely on board for the first 45 minutes. The set up felt like something straight out of an Agatha Christie novel and I was very intrigued about where the story was going to go. However, after the initial set-up of the El Royale itself and the characters surrounding it, the story and my interest in it fizzled out. It’s obvious this film suffers the most in it’s pacing, with the second and third act dragging an almost unbearable amount. I love long films if they justify their lengths. But at 141 minutes, Bad Times at the El Royale has so much narrative excess that by the painfully stretched out third act, I couldn’t wait for the film to end, and this was only exacerbated by the fact that the narrative was not all that compelling.One comparison which has been thrown around—and rightfully so—is that of Quentin Tarantino. With the film’s ultra-violence, ensemble cast, retro aesthetic and mysterious MacGuffins, it’s a completely understandable and well-founded comparison. Combining elements of Pulp Fiction’s sprawling narrative, a strong African-American lead a la Jackie Brown and the tightknit setting occupied by a cast of characters akin to his last film The Hateful Eight, it comes off more like Tarantino-lite than Goddard would’ve wanted it to be. It needed Tarantino’s skill in writing compelling dialogue to prop up its uninteresting narrative. What’s ironic is that Tarantino’s next feature, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, will be set in 1969 as well.
The performances are decent across the board. But in a film loaded with big names, the two best performances come from newcomers Cynthia Erivo and Lewis Pullman. In her feature debut, Erivo has some great back-and-forth with Flynn and is a steely presence on screen.
Chris Hemsworth, on the other hand, is unfortunately miscast as Billy Lee, a Charles Manson–like hippy cult leader. Hemsworth doesn’t have a prominent role until the final third of the film and a role like this needed more menace and sliminess to counteract the character’s alluring charm. Hemsworth just looked like he was doing his usual thing, only with a bit more villainy laced into it. This role needed someone like Matthew McConaughey or Boyd Holbrook to bring the required menace which Hemsworth didn’t have the ability to portray.
From a personal perspective, I was disappointed by Bad Times at the El Royale. As a fan of Goddard, I was hoping for something which blew me away. As much as I wanted this film to be great, I commend 20th Century Fox for giving Goddard a chance to make his passion project. This is a film which isn’t based off any pre-existing material and is something which I’m sure will polarise many general audiences. In today’s franchise-dominated landscape, I can’t help but hope it has some success; but I only had mediocre times at the El Royale. And much like the worst hotels, you feel like you’re there far longer than you actually are.
Bad Times at the El Royale is in Australian cinemas now.