Drew Goddard trades in his cabin in the woods for a disreputable motel on the border.
Bad Times at the El Royale is a cleverly constructed crime yarn about a group of strangers faced with crossing the line between right and wrong. And there is a literal line running through the story’s seedy setting, a ghost town of a resort on the Nevada-California border that’s faded since its swingin’ Rat Pack-era heyday.
One character is merely staying there because it’s cheaper than staying in Reno proper, another is on the run, and two more are looking for something hidden on the hotel’s grounds. None of the guests know what really happens inside the El Royale and none of them are looking for absolution — that’s the goal of a different character — although events just might end up offering it to some of them. Choices define people, actions trigger consequences, and even a bad person might be capable of doing something good. But there can be a heavy price to pay for doing the right thing.
Cabin in the Woods filmmaker Drew Goddard has fashioned a film here that would have been right at home in the ‘90s, when ensemble neo-noir crime flicks marked by their self-aware coolness, period soundtracks, and sardonic attitude followed in the wake of Quentin Tarantino’s success. And like a Tarantino film, Bad Times at El Royale is sectioned off into chapters, each one revealing new layers or a different perspective to an event we’d previously seen. Each character only has a portion of the information another one possesses so part of the fun is in seeing the pieces of the puzzle slowly come together.
Goddard employs a lot of long takes and moving camera throughout, an especially effective technique during the first big reveal of the dark secrets of the El Royale. This movie looks good, and the El Royale feels like a real place. You can practically smell the stale air of its dead casino and mildewy rooms. Everything feels authentic to the period (the story takes place primarily in 1969) and yet also trapped in time, truly making the El Royale feel like a purgatory sandwiched between heaven and hell. It’s a cliche at this point to call a movie’s setting as much of a character as the people in it but in this case it’s true.
Because of the segmented nature of the story, each cast member gets big moments to shine as we discover the deeper reasons why they’re at the El Royale. Jeff Bridges brings his folksy but gruff old-timer persona to Father Flynn (yes, the TRON star plays another Flynn) whose ill health complicates his mission there. Mad Men’s Jon Hamm seems right back at home in the ‘60s as Laramie Seymour Sullivan, a character who, like Don Draper, has far more going on than is initially apparent. Dakota Johnson plays Emily, a hippie with no s***s left to give and no qualms about combatting men she deems a threat. Thanks to Goddard’s writing and direction, each of them finds nuances to their characters to make them sympathetic even at their worst.
The real standouts among the ensemble though are lesser known cast members Cynthia Erivo and Lewis Pullman. Erivo plays Darlene Sweet, a struggling backup singer who is probably the only truly morally upright character in the story. Erivo’s singing is put to keen use here to accentuate key moments of tension. Darlene is not an outsized personality like some of the other characters and Erivo delivers a subtle but moving performance as someone just trying to get by. Lewis Pullman’s desk clerk, Miles, ends up having far more shadings than is initially evident, and Pullman excels at making the viewer empathize with this self-proclaimed sinner. If Darlene is the heart of this story then Miles is its troubled soul.
While much of the marketing may be centered on bare-chested Chris Hemsworth, he’s the weakest link in the cast and the story never quite pays off the buildup to his character, cult leader Billy Lee. Many of his scenes are with teen actress Cailee Spaeny, who often outshines him with her creepy stillness as Emily’s kid sister Rose. As played by Hemsworth, Billy Lee is more Jim Morrison than Charles Manson; Indeed, with his long, wavy mane, sleepy, sing-song cadence, and long-winded, self-important musings, Hemsworth seems to be lifting from Val Kilmer in The Doors. But Billy Lee never quite packs the punch that the anticipation of his arrival promises and Hemsworth is never commanding or chilling enough to convince in the role.
At 140 minutes, Bad Times at the El Royale occasionally becomes self-indulgent. Some of Bridges’ scenes could have been trimmed, and how many times do we really need to see a record start playing on a jukebox? These trims wouldn’t have adversely affected the movie overall. In a time when it’s a challenge to get audiences to go to a movie that isn’t part of a pre-sold brand or based on existing IP, it seems short-sighted for this otherwise meticulously crafted film to be needlessly long and thus cost it that extra showing a day at theaters.