Cast: Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo, Dakota Johnson, Jon Hamm, Cailee Spaeny, Lewis Pullman, Chris Hemsworth, Nick Offerman, Xavier Dolan, Jim O'Heir
Director: Drew Goddard
Running time: 2 hours 22 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
The titular setting for writer-director Drew Goddard’s latest genre exercise is a brilliant creation; full of garish wallpaper, kitschy carpets, neon signs, and a retro jukebox providing the film’s Motown-heavy soundtrack. Goddard is also a smart enough writer to infuse the hotel with an eerie atmosphere of past ghosts withering under the reign of Nixon, the Vietnam War, and the Mansion murders. Essentially an Agatha Christie-style mystery weaving a variety of characters together while also riffing on the structure of every post-modern thriller since Pulp Fiction, Bad Times at the El Royale boasts terrific performances and a cheeky premise, but ultimately veers off into goofy blood-splattered nonsense. It’s too bad, since Goddard has ambition and style to spare.
The film opens in 1969, where the El Royale is now a deserted wasteland when it used to be a bustling gambling hub. Run almost entirely by an awkward bellhop, Miles (Lewis Pullman), who gives each guest a prolonged pitch about the site’s iconic history straddling the California-Nevada border; the hotel has the vibe of being slightly out of time, which translates to a newly arriving group of strangers. There’s a priest (Jeff Bridges), a femme fatale with a secret (Dakota Johnson), a soul singer en route to Reno (Cynthia Erivo), and a traveling vacuum salesman (Jon Hamm), who all turn up one night for shelter. Of course, these are stock characters with ulterior motives, and Goddard initially has fun teasing out information about each one of them.
Once a hidden corridor running along one side of the hotel is discovered, Bad Times at the El Royale shifts from chamber drama into voyeuristic neo-noir, punctuated by moments of violence. Nothing is as it seems. No one can be trusted. Two-way mirrors provides moments of tension and ample excuses for Erivo to belt out doo-wop a cappella hits. As the camera snakes between rooms, we get pieces of each character’s backstories and how they ended up at the hotel. This gambit—complete with chapter breaks—is novelistic but also frustrating, since it stalls any sense of narrative momentum. In trying to deepen his character’s inner lives via flashback, Goddard loses the thread; forgetting that all we need to know is already being telegraphed through his very game cast of actors.
Once Chris Hemsworth’s swaggering cult leader, Billy Lee, enters the fray, Bad Times at the El Royale almost completely falls apart. Despite excellent turns from Pullman, Bridges, and especially Erivo, Hemsworth’s wannabe Manson clone takes over the film in a way which speaks to its larger issues as a self-critique of macho cruelty. This is exemplified in a scene where Erivo’s African American singer calls him out by saying “I’m bored of men like you” after he forces the remaining guests to indulge in a game of Russian roulette-style barbarity. The moment feels like Godard’s half-hearted concession to the #meToo movement, but plays somewhat embarrassingly since Hemsworth’s cult hippie eats away most of the third act’s running time.
Truthfully, Goddard may have gotten carried away by the success of his genre-defying previous feature, Cabin in the Woods. That was a film which actually subverted expectations while also being an entertaining horror comedy. Bad Times at the El Royale is too enamored by its own sleight-of-hand narrative gimmicks to be fully satisfying as either pulp trash or a stylish exercise. The hotel is a marvelous setting, but being trapped there for 140 minutes begins to feel like another kind of audience subversion; i.e. boredom.