‘Bad Times at the El Royale’ Review: A Movie That Lives Up to Its Title
Everywhere you look in Bad Times at the El Royale you’ll see doubles. None of the characters are who they initially appear to be. They all hide something, often a second, secret identity. Each of their rooms at the El Royale Hotel in Tahoe comes furnished with an enormous mirror, the better to enhance that sense of multiple selves. And the hotel itself is split into two mirrored halves — it sits on the state line between Nevada and California with each state housing an identical half of the building. Lines of dialogue between characters are often spoken twice; scenes are repeated from different points of view.
Doubles, doubles, doubles everywhere — up to and including this movie’s runtime, which at two hours and 20 minutes feels about twice as long as it needs to be. Bad Times at the El Royale tells a fairly simple crime story in the most convoluted fashion imaginable, interrupting itself constantly with flashbacks and tangents and stories that do nothing but slow an already deliberate film down to a standstill while symbolism drips off every frame like a salad that’s been overdressed with blue cheese. It adds nothing to the movie beyond the basic message that most people in this world are not who they appear to be. If writer/director Drew Goddard was trying to say more than that, whatever it was got drowned out by the violence and the rain and the heavy-handed metaphors at the El Royale.
The story involves a fair amount of twists, so I will stick mostly to what’s covered in the trailers. The characters all converge at the El Royale for what quickly turns into a dark and stormy night. Father Flynn (Jeff Bridges) is a kindly old priest. Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo, the clear standout) is a singer on the way to a gig in Reno. Laramie Sullivan (Jon Hamm) is a fast-talking traveling salesman. They all want a room at the El Royale, and then Emily (Dakota Johnson) shows up looking for a place to crash too. The only employee, Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman), never answers the bell at the front desk. He’s busy elsewhere.
The El Royale has its own secrets, including a hallway that lets Miles spy on the guests. Although it has seen better days (a law banning gambling supposedly drove away its clientele), the El Royale is fun to explore; production designer Martin Whist particularly outdid himself in creating its swanky, multilevel lobby. And the soundtrack is outstanding too, a collection of vintage Motown and pop, along with several classics sung live by Erivo, a Tony Award winner with a sensational voice.
Cool as the El Royale may be in its funky retro glory, though, it never really justifies its own quirkiness. The fact that the hotel straddles a state line really doesn’t matter, and the hidden hallways are largely a red herring, one of several in Bad Times (after the film is over, ask yourself who was that character in the doorway in the first scene, why he did what did, and what that had to do with anything that followed). The story may be set in the 1960s but the movie’s style is pure ’90s, ping-ponging between characters and their backstories in a chronologically jumbled style (literally, these are “bad times”) reminiscent of vintage Tarantino — or at least the Tarantino copycats that littered arthouses and video stores in the wake of Pulp Fiction. Characters die then reappear earlier in the story. Seemingly heinous actions are revealed to have benevolent motives — and vice versa.
What are Goddard’s motives in all of this? That’s what I could never pin down. He’s a very talented filmmaker — he got his start on shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Alias, and then earned an Oscar nomination for the screenplay to The Martian. His directorial debut, The Cabin in the Woods, remains one of the best meta-horror movies ever made. Goddard’s finest work has a unique voice. Bad Times at the El Royale is more like one of the covers Darlene constantly sings; the notes are played well enough, but someone else wrote the music.
Although Bad Times’ cast is impressive, it’s also none of its actors’ best work. Jeff Bridges’ performance as Flynn is barely indistinguishable from the other half-dozen cantankerous old codgers with hearts of gold he’s played over the last decade. Dakota Johnson and Jon Hamm both struggle with accents, then Chris Hemsworth shows up as a Charles Manson-esque cult leader with an even-more-tortured California surfer drawl. Viewers may not notice, however, as Hemsworth spends every single second he’s onscreen flashing his magnificent abs.
Lots of mystery hangs in the air of the El Royale, but when all is said and done there aren’t a ton of surprises in Bad Times at the El Royale’s story, or the way that story is told. Even with a bunch of twists, things progress largely how you expect, only slower. The characters do a lot of waiting at this hotel, and so the viewers wait too — even the final, violent confrontation between the protagonists is interrupted for a momentum-halting flashback. If Goddard intended all of these digressions, many of which place in fire-lit rooms, to give the viewer a taste of what it would feel like to be trapped in a purgatorial limbo, he succeeded a little too well.