Bad Times at the El Royale is an interesting movie.
It follows Drew Goddard’s only other directorial movie effort to date The Cabin in the Woods with the same sort of story. In both movies, Goddard takes a familiar movie genre and then has the viewers step inside and look at the inner workings of the world.
In The Cabin in the Woods, Goddard tackled the horror movie slasher but took viewers behind-the-scenes where a group of individuals set up the slasher world and filmed the kids as they died one-by-one until it all fell apart.
It was a very meta-film, but unlike something like Scream that lived in the world of the slasher film, The Cabin in the Woods created its own slasher experience.
Bad Times at the El Royale is set inside a crime world that looks just like a Quentin Tarantino movie. The movie basically plays with time in the same way that Tarantino enjoys doing but then allows the viewers to play the part of voyeurs in the murder and mayhem at the motel.
Bad Times at the El Royale takes place at a motel that straddles the state line between California and Nevada. On one side, there is a surcharge for rooms because they cost more in California. On the other side is slot machines that were shut down when the Nevada gaming commission cracked down on the motel.
As a result, the once popular and busy motel is sitting dead in the desert.
The year is 1969, which is important when it comes to one mystery of the movie that is only left up to the viewer to imagine the answer to. See, all the rooms in the motel have giant mirrors, and behind those one-way mirrors is a long hallway where management would set up a video camera to use — most likely to blackmail the people that they captured in unsavory acts.
This includes one moment that the motel’s concierge Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman) refused to send back to management because the person in it was nice to him. While it is never revealed who is on the role of film, a photo of Marilyn Monroe and a comment that the man in the film is dead makes it seem like it was John F. Kennedy.
With that said, it is only a small part of this movie.
Bad Times at the El Royale takes place over one night. A soul singer named Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo), a priest named Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges), a vacuum cleaner salesman named Laramie (Jon Hamm) and a hippy named Emily (Dakota Johnson) all check in that night.
The only person who is not lying about who they are and what they are doing at the El Royale is Darlene Sweet — who also happens to be the only innocent soul in the entire batch, and that includes Miles the concierge.
Without giving away too much, Emily has kidnapped her younger sister Rose (Cailee Spaeny) and is trying to help get her away from a charismatic cult leader named Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth) when their story interferes with the plans of the other guests.
Goddard splits up the movie into sections, each with a title card that is the name of the rooms as well as separate ones for Miles and another for Billy Lee. The stories all overlap and the viewer sees something that happened in previous scenes from other character’s points of view as the story progresses.
With that said, the only real problem with the movie (outside of a bloated 141-minute running time) is that some of the scenes don’t seem to add up right when comparing them to other scenes. It is almost like time is not running at the same speed for all the characters.
That is something that bothered me both during the movie and afterward when thinking about the experience.
There is also the treatment of one character that was uncomfortable to watch after learning more about him. It seemed mean-spirited and nihilistic and might have worked better without one specific phone call taking place. That works in Tarantino movies but just felt misguided here.
With that said, overall the movie was a blast to watch. Much like Cabin in the Woods, Goddard created an experience here more than just a narrative movie and the viewer lived through scenes, many more than once, seeing it from every angle and feeling the repercussions of the lies as they came crashing down on the motel guests.
The acting, from top to bottom, was spot-on. Jeff Daniels was great as the man who is losing his grip on his mind as he succumbs to dementia. Cynthia Erivo was great as the soul singer and is even given moments where she carries a scene through a song.
Dakota Johnson did a lot to prove that she is more than just the girl from Fifty Shades. Jon Hamm is exactly what you have come to expect and Chris Hemsworth is a delight in every scene he appears in. The guy has a huge future in Hollywood.
I also want to take the time to point out Lewis Pullman, the unknown member of this cast for me at least. His character had a tormented past and had seen more than any human ever should and he carried it in his performance. As someone who wanted salvation, he was possibly second to only Erivo’s Darlene Sweet as the person the audience really pulled for in the end.
The movie is a bloody affair — which makes sense from a Tarantino-inspired crime film. There are shocking deaths (remember the death of Vincent Vega in Pulp Fiction for an idea of how a death can come from nowhere) and the movie is never boring, although it could have used some trimming to tighten it up some.
Drew Goddard is two-for-two in his directorial movie career, and while Bad Times at the El Royale is not quite up to the level of Cabin in the Woods, it is still a solid addition to a crime genre in the post-Tarantino movie landscape.