Fun, frivolous and overlong, director Drew Goddard has his cake and eats it with Bad Times at the El Royale.
If The Cabin in the Woods was Drew Goddard’s affectionate, knowing take on horror movies, Bad Times at the El Royale is the writer-director’s homage to another beloved genre with a longstanding tradition: noir. At least, that’s what it initially seems. Goddard’s film opens in a typically noir-ish manner. A shadowy man, suitably decked out in a trilby and trench coat, enters a motel room with a MacGuffin in tow, a bag full of god-knows-what that he suspiciously buries under the floorboards. The wide frame captures the interior almost in its entirety, an eerily still long take building suspense as it teases the questions at the centre of the film’s mystery. Then, BANG! A sudden burst of graphic violence. The introduction to this world presents something familiar. It’s a thrilling opening that promises much, but filmmakers more illustrious than Goddard have stumbled when aiming for pastiche. Fortunately, Bad Times manages to transcend the trappings of noir. It stands out as its own thing, though falters in scope and ambition. Indeed, the first hour of Bad Times sets up a bundle of enigmas. However, it seems to go on, and on, and on, without delivering something proper to chew on. Whilst it’s refreshing to see a studio feature in 2018 that clearly stems from a singular vision, Goddard certainly could have used a bit of scaling back – the film struggles to earn its 140-minute runtime, often drifting into ‘style over substance’ territory.
The setting, of course, is the eponymous El Royale. A bistate establishment that straddles both California and Nevada, the once-thriving hotel now stands quiet, empty, withering. The 1960s are at their end, the American psyche fractured as Richard Nixon sits in the White House. The Vietnam War rages on. Bad Times is as much about the zeitgeist of the day as it is anything else, with Chris Hemsworth’s Manson surrogate a representation of the more extreme set of attitudes towards authority that were pervasive at the time. In this most interesting of settings, at this most interesting of times, an eclectic group of individuals – all with stories to tell – come together at just the wrong time. Oh yes, a storm’s brewing.
The set-up truly is captivating, with a lengthy introduction to each key player. We know all is not what it seems and, quite early on, the hotel’s secrets begin to reveal themselves. Goddard’s direction is meticulous at times, though perhaps too refined to create an atmosphere that harbours genuine mystery. There’s a Tarantino-like approach to chronology, with regular flashbacks and alternate perspectives to fill in the gaps, but these framing devices serve to render this a more simple fable than desired. Goddard appears firmly to have his writer’s cap on, tying up events in a neat little bow so that everything makes sense. Not only would trimming these sequences make it feel less flabby, Bad Times sorely lacks a deeper sense of ambiguity and mythology come the climax.
Cynthia Erivo and Jeff Bridges are the most prominent and impressive of the ensemble cast. Erivo’s Darlene Sweet, a wannabe soul singer who is far from hitting the big time, is the In for the audience. She appears the purest of the bunch, with the voice of an angel that is well-utilised in more than one inventive set piece. Seasoned veteran Bridges provides a compelling juxtaposition on multiple levels; Broadway actress Erivo is a newbie to cinema, this one of her first film roles, but you wouldn’t be able to tell based on this performance. That’s not to disparage Bridges. He’s excellent here as both duplicitous and essentially vulnerable. The remaining star names don’t get as much to do, unfortunately. Bad Times‘ script gives Wikipedia-lite background summaries on most of its characters, but few are that fascinating as people. Hemsworth’s cult leader Billy Lee is a peripheral figure, his purpose metaphorical in a way that is kind of smart but makes him dull, while Jon Hamm and Dakota Johnson are most underserved.
When the chaos eventually comes, you may have already checked out. Bad Times is great to look at, with a fine-tuned narrative. In this perfect polish lies its flaws. Ultimately feeling too clean and precise, the film could have used more grub and nastiness in its veins. It is in the dirt, the seams that sow the piece together, that you find your intrigue. Instead, Bad Times‘ seamlessness leaves it feeling a touch empty.
Bad Times at the El Royale (2018), directed by Drew Goddard, is distributed in the UK by 20th Century Fox, certificate 15.