Dropping characters into a singular location will always be a popular genre trope. From Rope to The Hateful Eight, the concept has always been a way for directors to build tension slowly over a few hours. Dating back to the days of the stage, these moments can truly bring the most out of characters by secluded them in tight, claustrophobic areas. One of the most exciting things about Bad Times at the El Royale is that director Drew Goddard utilizes space unlike few films of its ilk. Combined with big, bombastic performances, and littered with great moments, Bad Times features great genre storytelling from one of the very best raconteurs around.
Bad Times at the El Royale takes place in a forgotten motel outside of Reno, Nevada on the border of California. The state line runs down the middle of the hotel, creating a California side and Nevada side for the events of the film. In what sounds like a bad joke, a priest (Jeff Bridges), a singer (Cynthia Erivo), and vacuum salesman (Jon Hamm) enter the hotel. They are soon joined by a standoffish hippie chick (Dakota Johnson) and the young jack-of-all-trades who upkeeps the hotel (Lewis Pullman). However, the world is in a strange transitional period in 1969, and when a man named Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth) comes calling, their lives will never be the same.
The success of Bad Times really revolves around the work being done by Goddard. The director of Cabin in the Woods and writer of The Martian takes a decidedly different turn in his work on Bad Times. There are many funny moments, and Goddard innately seems to understand how humans tick. Rather than set up jokes for characters to tell through weirdly roundabout dialogue, he lets organic moments rise throughout the film. Yet just as integral, he lets the actors work with the dialogue in a way that feels naturalistic. There is not an actor in the film that acts out of character simply to move the plot along. Instead, moments are built and sometimes rebuilt, through shifting perspectives for each beat.
The film is full of standout performers, but four in particular rise above the rest. The big one, and frankly the scene stealer of the film, is Hemsworth. We can call the Chris wars now, with full knowledge that Hemsworth won the battle as soon as this film released. The actor has finally embraced the movie star attributes and charisma he has, especially as a comedic actor. While he does not show up until late in the film, his presence looms over the whole film. In repeat viewings, he will undeniably be the iconic performance from the film.
However, welcome to the big time Cynthia Erivo. There was never really any doubt that she would become a strong actress in films someday. That day is now, and in her debut feature film, she dominates the screen. The only person who can legitimately go toe-to-toe with any actor in this impressive cast, Erivo showcases amazing vocals and a deeply emotional turn. Her quiet reserve melts away, and you watch a star burst onto the screen as the film progresses. Simply stunning, she should legitimately be considered for a Best Supporting Actress nomination for the film.
Also of note will be Pullman, who buries levels of his character into subtext and subtle moments. This should be a role that pushes him into other strong and fun roles over the next few years. We were on the Pullman train early at We Bought a Blog (he’s the standout in The Strangers: Prey at Night) and will likely become a movie star with his devilish good looks. He’s very talented and might have the skill to become our next Gosling in the years to come.
Finally, Bridges does it again. He has played similar roles over the years, but there are very special moments in this one. Since 2009 in Crazy Heart, the actor has been legitimately great in most of his films. He peels back his character once more to reveal layers we rarely see from the actor. In particular, his moments where he struggles with dementia are very tough to watch on screen. This is likely the 2nd best performance of his career, following only his brilliant turn in Hell or High Water.
The rest of the cast is good but doesn’t get as much to do. Both Hamm and Johnson are limited in their roles, but both give great work in their opportunities. For many, it will be a surprise that Johnson can act, but she’s clearly got chops. The only actress that cannot stretch her role is Cailee Spaeny, who is given a mostly one-note character. While Goddard gives her great backstory with his screenplay, Spaeny does not get the moments to shine. Side characters played by Nick Offerman and Xavier Dolan also fill out the world with talent.
The actual production of the film helps to sell Goddard’s vision, with brilliantly vintage set design and coloring. The neon shining in the background while we look at Pie gives the film a distinctly Americana vibe. It’s delicious to take these moments in, with solid cinematography that really plays with the lighting. The use of music also provides standout moments for the film, including an awesome entrance by Hemsworth and brilliantly long takes that feature Erivo’s voice as the featured component of the scene.
All of the craft work is excellent and the script works great. The direction is solid. However, there’s one problem. This film feels long. That could be because of the 2 hour and 20-minute runtime. However, movies like this can feel much shorter. Unfortunately, you feel most of the time in this one, and it does drag the film to a halt on more than one occasion. What might be most frustrating is there are some redundancies from time to time. A great example is that we get a full rundown of the history of the El Royale from Hamm, only to get the company line version 5 minutes late from Pullman. It does distract, and when we switch perspectives in some of the scenes, we watch the same footage from two or three points of view. Sadly this slows down everything and hurts the finished product.
Overall, Bad Times at the El Royale is a strong recommend. The film works on a metaphorical level and should be open to a lot of readings as audiences watch it over and over again. Those who like Tarantino films will likely enjoy this, but there’s more depth to the screenplay here than most of his films. Goddard’s direction is strong, but ultimately, his unwillingness to cut hurts the final product. Still, it’s a fun movie that should get a bigger push in the public than it has gotten. Come for the strange and fun actors and actresses, but stay for the vintage crime ensemble piece.