UK Release Date: 12th October 2018
Runtime: 141 minutes
Director: Drew Goddard
Writer: Drew Goddard
Starring: Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo, Dakota Johnson, Jon Hamm, Lewis Pullman, Cailee Spaeny, Chris Hemsworth
Synopsis: A disparate group of people, almost all of whom are lying about their identities, converge at a largely abandoned, seedy motel on the California-Nevada border.
Drew Goddard‘s track record is pretty darn impressive. He made his name on the small screen as a writer on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Lost, before migrating to the big screen with scripts for movies like Cloverfield and The Martian. In between those films, he made his debut as a director with the sublime horror pastiche The Cabin in the Woods, which he also co-wrote with Joss Whedon. He’s back as writer-director for Bad Times at the El Royale – a movie that also has pastiche in the air, but doesn’t quite seem to be entirely sure what it’s a pastiche of.
The titular El Royale is a hotel on the border of California and Nevada. Guests are informed by the only remaining staff member (Lewis Pullman) that they can stay in a room in either state, with subtly different laws and rules depending on your room’s location. We’re introduced to a disparate bunch of arriving guests, including a travelling salesman (Jon Hamm), a priest with dementia (Jeff Bridges), a club singer (Cynthia Erivo) and an enigmatic woman (Dakota Johnson). It’s safe to say they’ve all got dark secrets, and nobody is telling the truth about their identity.
Goddard’s script is a multi-stranded tale, with chapter headings – an unnecessary and irritating device at the best of times – used to separate the different perspectives of the characters. It’s not quite a Rashomon-style take on the same event, but the chapters overlap and intersect to showcase different corners of the hotel and fill in narrative gaps that open as the story progresses. The obvious comparison point is Quentin Tarantino who, like Goddard, made the jump from pithy genre deconstruction in Reservoir Dogs to meandering, indulgent nonsense by the time he got to The Hateful Eight.
And that’s where Bad Times at the El Royale sits. It’s a dismally bloated and entirely unexciting trudge of a story that hopes to get by on style alone, given its distinct lack of characterisation. With the exception of Cynthia Erivo – who equally shines as part of an ensemble in Widows – there’s very little reason to care about these people, who are uniformly quippy without ever being funny or clever. Hamm’s suave salesman, in particular, is entirely wasted.
The film threatens to come to life with the late in the day arrival of Chris Hemsworth as a swaggering, violent cult leader who sees the buttons on his shirt as entirely optional. His appearance on the scene kicks off the ostensibly tense finale, but in a perfect microcosm of the film’s myriad failings, it’s all stretched out for so long that any tension ebbs and flows in the wake of the machine gun dialogue. There are loose ends aplenty and it all ends with an inelegant whimper, after the obligatory bloodbath. Bad times, indeed.
Pop or Poop?
Drew Goddard certainly can’t be faulted for ambition when it comes to Bad Times at the El Royale, but the execution is rambling and unruly in a way that completely sinks its attempts at noirish thrills. There are scattered moments of joy in the performances but, for the most part, this is an overlong and messy portrait of madness without care or character.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.