A priest named Father Flynn (Jeff Bridges), a singer named Darlene (Cynthia Erivo), a vacuum cleaner salesman named Seymour (Jon Hamm), and a mysterious, callous young woman (Dakota Johnson) check into the El Royale. Situated on the border between California and Nevada, the hotel is long past its heyday but in one fateful night of drama and death, the lives of seven strangers, each haunted by secrets and personal demons, will come crashing together.
Director-writer Drew Goddard is supported by an impressive resume in considering this, his second feature. As well as earning acclaim for his directorial debut, 2012’s ‘The Cabin in the Woods’, he has penned great screenplays for ‘The Martian’ and ‘World War Z’, and written for TV series like ‘Lost’, ‘Alias’, ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ and ‘Daredevil.’ In this latest, his love of the medium of film is clear from his direction of the cast, cinematography and production design. He draws on the likes of the Coen Brothers and Quentin Tarantino for plot and characterisation. Unfortunately he also suffers from the same self-indulgence that can be associated with those auteurs of cinema.
Set in the 70s, ‘Bad Times at the El Royale’ starts off strong. It is theatrical in its introduction of the characters and staging of the scenes, in a way that evokes style and promotes intrigue. The casting is immaculate in Hamm and Bridges, while relative newcomers Erivo (best-known for her Broadway performances, we’ll be seeing her in ‘Widows’ later this year) as the very talented but insecure Darlene, and Lewis Pullman as the hotel’s young concierge, are also brilliant. The weaker links are Johnson, who simply doesn’t exude presence or inspire that much interest, and Cailee Spaeny, whose character is bland.
Goddard’s script doesn’t bring the shocks that one expects, and you can definitely see a couple of the twists coming. It’s actually quite straightforward and neatly packaged in its episodic nature, in spite of alternating timelines and perspectives – and everything is neatly wrapped up in the end. Movie fans might find such absence for interpretation irritable but more annoying still is the fact that the film is simply too long. It clocks in at a little under two and a half hours, and the third act, in spite of the introduction of a new character, completely drags as it takes the narrative in an inconceivable direction.
In spite of a compelling start, one finds themselves less and less engaged as the mysteriousness of ‘Bad Times’ unravels. While moderately enjoyable to watch, it lacks the sharpness it seems to think it has.