Four guests show up at a once popular hotel on the California-Nevada border. Stuck there for the night for various reasons, they find themselves uncovering secrets about each other and the hotel itself. That is pretty much all I can say in regard to the plot to the noir-ish thriller Bad Times at the El Royale without venturing into spoiler territory. It is one of those stories that consists almost entirely of style and twists. Revealing anything could give the whole thing away. It is very Tarantino-esque in its dialogue and the way it gives details that do not initially appear to be essential to the plot. However, it lacks the depth or cleverness of QT’s best work. While I appreciated the performances and individual scenes, overall, it comes off as an empty genre exercise.
I cannot discuss the plot, but I can tease you a bit with the characters, all of whom are introduced with great intrigue. There is smooth talking vacuum salesman Laramie Seymour Sullivan, played by Jon Hamm with a combination of charm and impatience. Jeff Bridges is the kind, yet seemingly out of place, Father Daniel Flynn. Cynthia Erivo is Darlene, a singer who wants to be left alone to practice. Dakota Johnson rounds out the guest list as the mysterious Emily who, I will just say, is not a people person. The fifth major character is hotel manager Miles, played by Lewis Pullman, who is pleasant in a way that makes it clear he is hiding something. They are also joined by key characters played by Cailee Spaeny and Chris Hemsworth.
Everything about Bad Times at the El Royale is focused on its style. Every aspect about the characters, from their look to the way they speak to the way they are framed in each shot, seems designed to make them into archetypes. That was cool at first but, approximately halfway through the 135 minute running time (minus the end credits), I realized there was nothing going on underneath the surface. There is no substance here. It comes off as characters basing their actions on movies they have seen, a criticism often levied against Tarantino. He tends to be able to subvert genre expectations, while here it plays into them.
Writer/director Drew Goddard previously wrote/directed the clever horror satire The Cabin in the Woods. There, he set up horror clichés, then knocked them down as he simultaneously commented on and paid homage to them. For much of the first half of El Royale, that is what I thought he was doing for dark, twisty thrillers about disparate strangers meeting up at a mysterious location. He is not. It is all played straight, which would be fine if the movie were as complex as it pretends to be. Here, style and cleverness are employed for their own sake. The lengthy monologues, creepy set-pieces and surprise revelations do not add up to a lot.
That being said, there are large stretches that work pretty well. The early scene introducing the major players as they meet each other in the lobby is really good. As is the climactic showdown. There is also a compellingly creepy sequence where the Jon Hamm character discovers some of the El Royale’s more alarming secrets. Those three scenes actually felt like they were about something.
There are several smaller moments, individual shots and pieces of conversations that drew me in. That is a credit to the excellent cast Goddard was able to put together. The effortlessly charismatic Jon Hamm is perfect for the role of a guy who uses a constant stream of bluster to imply a sense of authority. Jeff Bridges lends as much nuance as possible to this screenplay. He takes what he is doing here very seriously. They are both quite good, as are Dakota Johnson, Lewis Pullman and Chris Hemsworth as a psychopath. The most interesting performance is given by Cynthia Erivo as the hardworking singer. Her role is just as familiar as everyone else’s, but she brings genuine emotion and sympathy to it. It was almost like the stakes were real when she was onscreen. While the screenplay may come off as less clever than it thinks it is, at least the performers sell everything as though it matters.
Despite my complaints, I did not have a bad time with El Royale. There are sections that live up to the potential of the central concept. But twistiness is only effective if the underlying story is engrossing. Unfortunately, it really is not. There is enough in the writing and acting for me to recommend this for fans of the genre. However, it is certainly not a place I will be visiting again anytime soon.
3 out of 5
Jeff Bridges as Father Daniel Flynn
Cynthia Erivo as Darlene Sweet
Lewis Pullman as Miles
Jon Hamm as Laramie Seymour Sullivan
Dakota Johnson as Emily
Cailee Spaeny as Ruth
Chris Hemsworth as Billy Lee
Written and directed by Drew Goddard