At this point in the year, the major contenders for awards season have begun staking their claims. The first two weeks in October likely saw a pair of Best Picture hopefuls (A Star is Born and First Man) make their debuts. However, both of them were beaten out at the box office by Venom, which has owned October to the tune of $142-million. That tells us, even though summer has come and gone, there is still plenty of room for the films that don’t take themselves too seriously. Bad Times at the El Royale is not a masterpiece, or even as good as it could have been, but it was still a solid original movie that didn’t try to be more than it was…and that’s increasingly rare these days.
There are a couple things you should know about writer/director Drew Goddard. He doesn’t skimp on style…that, and he loves Chris Hemsworth. Goddard has penned some ambitious screenplays (Cabin in the Woods and Cloverfield) but he’s also written some very solid character dramas (The Martian and World War Z) as well. His original scripts showcase a strong command of visual storytelling and that’s on full display here: all the way down to the character design. Apparently, this story is based on a real hotel near the California-Nevada border called the Cal Neva where some intriguing celebrity encounters went down. Unfortunately, the story we get is not very straightforward. The film set up this overarching mystery regarding the operational aspect of the hotel, but that was abandoned in favor of the individual character arcs and where they all overlap in a jumbled Venn diagram. As a result, the runtime is a lengthy two hours and 21-minutes and the whole thing is kinda messy. The overall narrative is intriguing but the dialogue isn’t strong enough to justify the length of the movie and, while the movie gets some points for originality, it is very blatantly pulled from the Tarantino playbook.
There were no secrets when it came to building the advertising campaign for this movie; stellar cast looks to unravel a mystery at a quirky locale set in the 1960s. The project was going to have to be character driven but the best performances were something of a surprise. Based on the billing, it was hard to anticipate that Cynthia Erivo was going to steal the show. The 31-year-old British Broadway star put her vocal talent on display as Darlene Sweet, a backup singer looking to go solo. It was refreshing to see a young black woman in a prominent role here. Erivo’s unique talent was well suited for the role and the Tony Award winner did more than hold her own alongside some Hollywood A-listers.
Her primary sparring partner was the invariably affable Jeff Bridges playing Father Daniel Flynn. The consummate professional has an undeniable and steadfast charisma that he brings to every role, which has served him well over his 50+ year career. We meet him here as a somewhat disheveled priest with some serious lapses in memory but there’s more than meets the eye. Bridges has a knack for conveying a wide array of emotions and his versatility is on full display with this character. While he had a nice broad character arc to work with, not everyone in the cast was afforded the same opportunity.
The tertiary overlapping story involves the aforementioned Hemsworth as Billy Lee, a Charles Manson-like cult leader, with Dakota Johnson (Fifty Shades of whatever) and Cailee Spaeny (Pacific Rim: Uprising) as a pair of sisters who had recently “left” the group. Hemsworth definitely brought a powerful charisma to the role and was close to outstanding in moments, tapping into a strong comedic base that’s been increasingly on display in all his work, while still showing a little more depth as a villain. Johnson was better than anticipated when given the chance. Despite the billing, she isn’t the focal point of that story but she did well in the limited capacity provided. Spaeny, on the other hand, plays a delightfully twisted and strange devotee of Billy Lee’s who has more than a little psychopath in her. This will likely be the role that sparks her career, so keep an eye out for her performance.
Let’s not forget Jon Hamm is in this movie playing an undercover FBI agent who’s trying to unravel the bigger mystery of the hotel itself. This role was tailor-made for Hamm, but he was massively underutilized in this movie. It would have been nice to extend the rampant backstory expositions to his character as well. When one door closes, another one opens and Lewis Pullman stepped right through as Miles Miller, the troubled clerk at the El Royale. He too was underutilized and didn’t get the same backstory treatment as everyone else but was in the background for the majority of the movie, so at least it made sense. Miles dealt with a lot at the hotel and he’s suffered for it; all he wanted was absolution. Pullman wasn’t exactly a scene stealer, but he kept getting better as the film went along and his character became more involved. This is probably going to be his breakout role but I’d bet he was pretty close to landing the role of Peter Parker when Marvel rebooted Spider-man. And for you Parks and Recreation fans, Nick Offerman has a small but important role as armed robber Felix O’Kelly.
There is no doubt the film looked good. Martin Whist worked with Goddard on two previous films that required a commitment to a particular aesthetic up front, Cloverfield and Cabin in the Woods. The 60s flair was a nice touch, but really looked it’s best on the cars and the hotel design itself. He costume design by Danny Glicker wasn’t outright bad, it just felt like one of the least important aspects of the movie after the initial character introductions. The set decoration was nicely done by Hamish Purdy, the central lounge of the hotel was certainly the crowned jewel, reinventing a fictional version of a once very glamorous place. Seamus McGarvey knows how to tell a compelling visual story having worked on films like The Avengers and Godzilla but his work was much more subtle this time around. With everything going on McGarvey didn’t have a heavy hand when it came to scene making; instead, letting the actors have the room. The whole opening scene is a motionless wide-shot of a hotel room as the film’s catalyzing events took place. That was a bold choice, but it definitely set a stylistic tone right off the bat.
Michael Giacchino has scored some big-time Hollywood movies in the last year but, honestly, this original score felt uninspired. Maybe it was intentional as the classic music selection throughout made for a very enjoyable soundtrack but, more importantly, it also provided a specific attitude and aided in setting the scene during the late 1960s. Some of the biggest hits of the era were included, such as Bend Me, Shape Me and Can’t Take My Eyes Off You. Sadly, Erivo’s rendition of This Old Heart of Mine, which plays a monumental role in both the film and the trailer, is somehow not included on the original soundtrack. It would seem that Goddard was in charge of music supervision since that isn’t listed in the film’s credits, so give him credit for that as well.
This wasn’t the kind of the movie where I walked out of the theater feeling overly impressed. It was well put together from the top down and had the benefit of some strong performances in key roles but never really delivered on the mystery I went to see. Notwithstanding, I know a good movie when I see one and, despite some flaws, Bad Times at the El Royale is still a pretty good movie.
Recommendation: If you are a fan of Goddard’s other work or Quentin Tarantino, then this is probably right up your alley. Despite the R-rating, it isn’t abhorrently violent or sexual but it’s decidedly adult and very long.