Bad Times at the El Royale
Jacob Richardson | 13/10/2018
Despite the occasional pacing issue and a reluctance to take any grand moral statement, Bad Times at the El Royale is an entertaining, hyper-neon, twist-filled thriller with killer performances.
One fateful day at the once thriving El Royale Hotel, seven strangers come into contact. Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges), lounge singer Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo) and vacuum salesman Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm) are soon joined by young hippy Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson) and her younger sister. They are all checked in by hotel clerk Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman), and much later are joined by Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth). What they each discover is that this hotel is no ordinary hotel. Split over the states of Nevada and California, and with secret passageways and windows into each room, the El Royale is a harbour of secrets, misdemeanours and brutality. As the hours whittle away, those secrets begin to have deadly consequences for all involved.
Drew Goddard does a tremendous job with keeping Bad Times at the El Royale tense and surprising. Characters come and go at times you wouldn’t expect (most evident in Chris Hemsworth being largely absent before the 2 hour mark). He keeps the mystery of the place, without ever having it diverge into a creepy, horror-esque vibe. That’s important, because Bad Times is meant to not only be thriller-y, but also fun. It’s entertaining, and Jon Hamm in particular has great fun early in the film generating a large amount of chuckles.
As the film progresses, we begin to get insights into the lives of these people prior to this fateful night. Bridges, whose ageing bank robber is suffering from alzheimer's, in particular manages to wring some pathos out of his backstory, in an affecting piece of performance towards the end of the film. Erivo’s singing voice makes more of an impression than her acting or her character, but Johnson brings some real grit and energy to her avenging sister act in Emily Summerspring.
When he eventually arrives, Chris Hemsworth’s Billy Lee is all shirtless swagger and unpredictable energy. Hemsworth evidently relishes the opportunity to play with that, and it leads to some very fun moments. However, it is Lewis Pullman who makes the largest mark. As the young addict at the heart of the hotel, he interacts with every character, and in doing so manages to generate a huge range of performance in a short amount of screentime. As the malevolence in the hotel turns towards him, you begin to feel truly frightened; terrified at the idea of anything happening to him. This never really happens in the same degree with any of the other characters, and is ironic as Miles Miller turns out to be one of the worst of the lot. It’s a testament to the virtues of Pullman’s performance that the sordid history of Miles never outweighs his undeniable likeability.
Drew Goddard plays with visuals to ensure that the hotel feels adequately ~off~, but he also keeps the film quite long, at 2 hours and 21 minutes. This means that certain bits undeniably drag, and while the title cards depicting each characters new perspective is undeniably useful when Billy Lee is introduced, it means that the first hour of the film retreads a lot of ground. For the most part, however, Goddard keeps this light, frothy, surprising and bloody enough to make it easy to overlook the extended runtime.
It might be a bit long, but Bad Times at the El Royale is an electrifying, constantly surprising and shockingly bloody tale anchored in solid performances from some incredible actors.